Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say
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Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say

In a rush to claim orbital real-estate, competitors ask regulators to clamp down on SpaceX’s Starlink project

By BOJAN PANCEVSKI
Tue, Apr 20, 2021 1:35pmGrey Clock 5 min

Elon Musk’s internet satellite venture has spawned an unlikely alliance of competitors, regulators and experts who say the billionaire is building a near-monopoly that is threatening space safety and the environment.

The Starlink project, owned by Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX, is authorized to send some 12,000 satellites into orbit to beam superfast internet to every corner of the Earth. It has sought permission for another 30,000.

Now, rival companies such as Viasat Inc., OneWeb Global Ltd., Hughes Network Systems and Boeing Co. are challenging Starlink’s space race in front of regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Some complain that Mr. Musk’s satellites are blocking their own devices’ signals and have physically endangered their fleets.

Mr. Musk’s endeavor is still in beta testing but it has already disrupted the industry, and even spurred the European Union to develop a rival space-based internet project to be unveiled by the end of the year.

The critics’ main argument is that Mr. Musk’s launch-first, upgrade-later principle, which made his Tesla Inc. electric car company a pioneer, gives priority to speed over quality, filling Earth’s already crowded orbit with satellites that may need fixing after they launch.

“SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” said Chris McLaughlin, government affairs chief for rival OneWeb. “Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Around 5% of the first batch of Starlink satellites failed, SpaceX said in 2019. They were left to gradually fall back to earth and vaporize in the process. In November 2020, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics calculated that the Starlink failure rate was nearly 3%. Mr. McDowell said Starlink has vastly improved the design of their satellites since then, and that the failure rate is currently below 1%, and on track to improve further.

Even with the constant improvement, Mr. McDowell said, Starlink will operate so many satellites that even a low failure rate would mean a relatively high threat to orbital safety because of the potential for collisions. “They clearly have been making continuous improvements…but it’s a challenging thing they are doing and it’s not clear that they will be able to manage the final constellation,” he said.

Starlink operates more than 1,300 spacecraft in Earth’s lower orbit and is adding some 120 more every month. Its fleet is now on track to top the total number of satellites that have been launched since the 1950s—around 9,000.

Orbital space is finite, and the current lack of universal regulation means companies can place satellites on a first-come, first-served basis. And Mr. Musk is on track to stake a claim for most of the free orbital real estate, largely because, unlike competitors, he owns his own rockets.

In the coming days, the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. is set to approve a request by SpaceX to modify its license and allow a greater number of satellites to orbit at a lower altitude of around 550 kilometres (a kilometre is 0.625 mile). If approved, competitor satellites would have to navigate around SpaceX’s fleet to place their own spacecraft.

Other companies operating in space have asked the FCC to impose conditions on SpaceX, including lowering its fleet’s failure rate to 1 in 1,000, and improving collision-avoidance capabilities while ensuring they don’t block the transmissions of other craft orbiting above them.

“You should have fewer satellites and make them more capable,” Mark Dankberg, Viasat founder and executive chairman, said.

On Twitter, Mr. Musk commented on Mr. Dankberg’s earlier warnings that his company posed a hazard to orbital traffic by tweeting: “Starlink ‘poses a hazard’ to Viasat’s profits, more like it.”

A spokesman for Boeing, which is also challenging Starlink at the FCC, said it is “critically important to the future of a safe and sustainable orbital environment that standards be globally consistent and enable a competitive playing field.”

In the region of space where Starlink operates, satellites orbit the earth at 18,000 miles an hour. Any collision could spread high-velocity debris that could make the orbit unusable for years.

Competitors say Starlink satellites have low maneuverability, meaning that other firms’ craft have to act when collisions threaten.

Starlink satellites have come alarmingly close to other spacecraft twice in the last two years, including on April 2, when a Starlink satellite prompted another operated by OneWeb, controlled by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the U.K. government, to make evasive maneuvers, according to OneWeb and the U.S. Space Command.

Mr. Musk’s satellites are equipped with an AI-powered, automated collision avoidance system. Yet that system had to be switched off when a Starlink satellite came within 190 feet of the rival’s satellite this month, according to OneWeb’s Mr. McLaughlin.

When contacted by OneWeb, Starlink’s engineers said they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and switched off the collision avoidance system so OneWeb could maneuver around the Starlink satellite without interference, according to Mr. McLaughlin.

Starlink hasn’t revealed details about their AI collision avoidance system. Mr. McDowell, the astrophysicist, said it was hard to take any such system seriously when it remains unclear what data it uses to operate.

A similar incident took place in late 2019, when a Starlink satellite was on a near-collision course with an EU weather satellite, according to the European Space Agency, which runs EU satellites. The agency said it was only able to contact Starlink via email and the company told it they would take no action, so EU engineers had to initiate a collision avoidance maneuver.

SpaceX didn’t reply to requests for comment about the two incidents

Lower earth orbit is getting crowded with broadband satellite constellations: Amazon.com Inc.’s Project Kuiper aims to put out 3,200 satellites, Britain’s OneWeb about 700 and Telesat of Canada around 300. Russia and China are working on their own, potentially massive, constellations.

An EU official said that owning a constellation that can beam broadband internet to Earth is a strategic priority for the bloc. It is expected to publish a road map for a public-private partnership to create a broadband satellite fleet worth around €6 billion, equivalent to $7.19 billion, by the end of the year.

Space-safety experts say the number of projects means more regulation is needed to avoid potential catastrophes.

“It’s a race to the bottom in terms of getting as much stuff up there as possible to claim orbital real estate,” said Moriba Jah, associate professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. “Musk is just doing what’s legal…but legal is not necessarily safe or sustainable.”

Nevertheless, most governments welcome the onset of satellite-beamed broadband as a cheaper and faster alternative to building broadband networks. In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the leading telecom provider Deutsche Telekom recently signalled a willingness to join with Starlink.

“I’m a great admirer of Elon Musk and his ideas,” Deutsche Telekom Chief Executive Timotheus Höttges said in January.

 

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 19, 2021



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Milestone birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, and graduations are momentous life occasions that some like to mark with large and elaborate celebrations.

And the deep-pocketed set are still in catch-up mode after a party-throwing standstill during the pandemic that went on for many months during the height of the lockdowns and social distancing. Bashes since then have become ever more extravagant and experiential—mere get-togethers, they’re not.

Hosts are also seeking any excuse to throw an event and having parties with the same “wow” factor for far less significant reasons, or for micro-occasions as they’re called, and even “just because,” according to luxury event planners who work with this elite set.

Colin Cowie, a planner based in New York and Miami who regularly orchestrates multimillion-dollar gatherings and was behind Jennifer Lopez’s and Ben Affleck’s wedding, calls it the “event revolution.”

“Large-scale events have become the norm,” Cowie says. “The wealthy, who are used to celebrating their life moments in a big way couldn’t do anything during the pandemic and are now going all out for anything they host.”

His company, Colin Cowie Lifestyle, plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid and has a lineup booked for the next two years. An example includes an upcoming million-dollar dinner party in the Hamptons simply to socialise with friends. It’s an affair with free-flowing Dom Perignon, centre-cut filet mignons, and unlimited caviar.

Colin Cowie Lifestyle plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid
Calen Rose

Other high-end planners also attribute the rise of over-the-top celebrations to a “live life to the fullest” attitude that’s become prevalent in the last few years. But they say that these parties aren’t necessarily about spending more than before—rather, they’re increasingly creative, thoughtful, and, with respect to weddings, longer.

Lynn Easton, a Charleston-based planner, says that her typical wedding used to span two days and entailed a rehearsal dinner plus the wedding itself. “Now, it’s a five-day bonanza with events like a groomsman lunch,” Easton says.

Easton also plans glitzy milestone birthdays such as one for a 60th where the host flew 60 friends and family to a private island. Dinners were multi-hour affairs in various locations around the isle with the showpiece being a five-course meal where the food was presented on dishes that were hand-carved in ice.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, based in New York and Miami, says that, in a new precedent, the weddings she’s tapped to design kick off with striking welcome meals. She recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden. Elements included potted herbs, lemon trees, vintage olive oil cans, ceramic plates, and table cards presented with palm leaves in limoncello cans.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden.
Aletiza Photo

Pashmina shawls hung from chairs to keep guests warm, and freshly baked pizzas and Aperol spritzes were in ready supply throughout the evening.

Stacy Teckin, the groom’s mother, hosted the party with her husband, Ian, and says she sought to pull off a dinner that made an impression on their guests. “The wedding was delayed because of Covid, and now that we had the chance to celebrate, we wanted to go all out,” Teckin says. “I’m not sure we would have done that before.”

In another example, acclaimed planner Norma Cohen threw a wild safari-themed bar mitzvah for a client.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon
Norma Cohen Productions

The memorable occasion transpired at Spring Studios in downtown Manhattan and saw 400 guests be transported to the African plains: Details included mammoth replicas of wildlife such as giraffes and elephants, servers in safari themed attire, and entertainment dressed like giraffes. The event was one of several over-the-top parties Cohen’s arranged recently.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon, one of the city’s most luxurious properties, also ranks high in Cohen’s memory.

Then there’s a destination party in London that Cohen planned for a client who was turning 40. It as a six-day affair with dinners at swanky spots such as Cipriani, the Arts Club, and Cecconi’s at Soho House. The finale was Lancaster House, a mansion in St. James, where guests were entertained by cabaret dancers from the famed Ibiza club Lio Ibiza and feasted on prime rib and lamb chops and imbibed on Krug champagne.

“People today don’t want to host events,” Cohen says. “They want experiences that take you away to a different place and make you forget that the real world exists.”