back to article 5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. 1... Runty-birds are go: 12,000+ internet-beaming mini-satellites OK'd by USA

America's broadband and telly regulator, the FCC, today approved a vast expansion in satellite networks around Earth. This effectively gives the green light to the launch of tens of thousands of mini-satellites that will operate in low orbit and mesh together to form next-generation communications networks. The federal …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Im sorry Dave I cant do that, there's too many fscking satellites around

  2. Pen-y-gors

    What could possibly...

    you know the rest.

    And, out of idle curiosity, what gives one country the right to fill Earth's orbital space with junk? Does the government of Tuvalu have the right to authorise the deployment of 12,000 itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny yellow-polka-dot nuclear devices in low earth orbit?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What could possibly...

      There's nothing to stop another country zapping things over its sky either. I'd quite enjoy seeing a country decide to kill electronics and clear the sky by letting it burn up. I like tech, I like the planet, I hate people who think they own everything and can throw their crap anywhere. You want broadband? Cover your own country in infrastructure. Fibre is sustainable and cheap. People want to live in the sticks, they won't get good infrastructure. Too bad, so sad

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: What could possibly...

        "You want broadband? Cover your own country in infrastructure"

        One of the unstated parts of these kinds of networks is that it effectively _destroys_ all hope of any one government managing to censor their citizens Internet access. Think of it as VoA or Radio Free Europe on steroids.

        In the case of the USA, this may be aimed at "rural dwellers" but with a huge number of folks having a choice of one broadband provider or no broadband provider it's the kind of market shakeup that comes along one in a lifetime.

        The FCC may approve this for USA and other countries may not, but as Iridium proved with satellite phones, once you have low powered enough technology it's virtually impossible for hostiles to pick up on it - and between proposed clouds of observation sats and uncontrolled broadband, places like Rakhine State in Myanmar are going to benefit from the inability of the government to make a single hostile step without it being documented (it will also allow targets of other military forces to document atrocities in a way that I think military planners haven't even begun to appreciate, let alone plan for.)

        (The Rohingya have been facing Burmese extermination campaigns since Burma first invaded the (then) Arakan Kingdom in 1784 (before being beaten out by the British in 1826), resuming in 1962 as part of their ongoing religious clensing policy. What's happening there isn't recent developments - just recently getting better coverage - and the Burmese attitude is somewhat like a certain Saudi Prince inasmuch as "they've been doing it for years, what's the big deal now?")

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: What could possibly...

      yeah space is 'crowded enough' with the actual junk; now we're sending up a bunch of mini-junk that is likely to create more problems than it solves. OK how is this going to impact space aviation in the future? Even simple sub-orbital flights would probably have to dodge these @#$%'ing things...

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: What could possibly...

        "OK how is this going to impact space aviation in the future?"

        Believe it or not, "not that much". These things are all going into the same orbital belts (so instead of 1 or 2 sats in one orbit you might have 100 looping around) and "space is big, very big" in terms of being 3 dimensional.

        There's a lot of effort going into ensuring these things don't shed parts and are de-orbital at end of life - and besides stuff at lower altitudes has a very short halflife anyway (months to years). It's things in the 600-6000km range that's annoying and worrying as it can stay up there for centuries.

        The vast majority of junk up there is from missions predating the 1980s. Attitudes changed when things like 2nd stage boosters left shut down in orbit (without venting everything) started exploding and the Skylab guys spent an anxious few months worrying about where their launch vehicle would come down, not having planned a return trajectory and then realising that it was large enough to cause mayhem if it landed on a populated area.

        These days just about _everything_ which doesn't need to be in orbit (eg, second stages, etc) is left in deeply eccentric orbits where the lowest point is low enough into the atmosphere that it'll come down in a few orbits thanks to friction.

        There's still a shitload of stuff to bring down, particularly from higher orbits, but a laser broom is probably the most viable option. One of the biggest impediments to getting it underway isn't cost, but the politics of actually getting all the countries with stuff in LEO to agree to allow it, as starting to bring down debris could be interpreted as a hostile act. Remember how the USSR were shitting bricks about Shuttle's return from orbit capabilities?

    3. jake Silver badge

      Re: What could possibly...

      "And, out of idle curiosity, what gives one country the right to fill Earth's orbital space with junk?"


    4. Steve Todd

      Re: What could possibly...

      These low earth orbit satellites will burn up through re-entry on their own accord after about 5-6 years unless they use fuel to keep boosting them back to position. It’s the stuff in higher orbits that hangs around for a while.

      1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

        Re: What could possibly...

        "These low earth orbit satellites will burn up through re-entry on their own accord after about 5-6 years unless they use fuel to keep boosting them back to position. It’s the stuff in higher orbits that hangs around for a while."

        But the question is what will they take out on their way down? If these are at 300 miles altitude, that means that they're the other side of things like the ISS (~220 miles)

    5. Jay Lenovo

      Re: What could possibly...

      I expect nothing worse than how we manage things thrown in the ocean.

      ...Chief "Iron Eyes Cody" looks to the sky and feels another tear role down his face.

    6. aqk

      Re: What could possibly..poison our atmosphere?

      When these things "burn up" will our atmosphere slowly be polluted with Cesium, Cobalt, Xylunkium and Transmogrium, And whatever the shit else is in their chips and circuits?

      What next- a bunch of low-flying birds that are powered by plutonium?

      But what I REALLY wanna know is- will my present rural geosat internet connection with its 800ms ping and 5 Mbs DL speed be improved? At a lower price?

      1. Orv Silver badge

        Re: What could possibly..poison our atmosphere?

        What next- a bunch of low-flying birds that are powered by plutonium?

        We already did that with some space probes, although we took pains to make sure the plutonium wouldn't burn up if they re-entered. (Even if it had, mind, it would be a faction of what was already released by WWII-era bomb fabrication plants.) The satellites powered by fission reactors were more of a potential threat, as was demonstrated by Kosmos 954.

      2. Steve Todd

        Re: What could possibly..poison our atmosphere?

        @aqk, they are talking about 25ms pings and 100mbits/sec or faster. How much they charge for it will be the kicker, but that will depend on your local market as, the way I understand it, SpaceX will partner with local ISPs to provide the ground side of the equation.

  3. deater

    > As the movie Gravity graphically demonstrated,

    So you mean the Kessler Syndrome, for those of us that don't get all of our science education from fictional Hollywood movies.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yeah, this line caught my eye: "As the movie Gravity graphically demonstrated, the impact of even a tiny piece of trash with something powering through the atmosphere can be catastrophic,"

      While I disapprove of adding space junk that won't de-orbit itself in some controlled way (which most low orbit stuff does when it hits a little drag)...and happen to think these schemes aren't the best way to add bandwidth and reduce latency...

      1. I really doubt there was atmosphere in the movie. Even Hollywood knows that you don't orbit in atmosphere. At least not in anything you'd call that. It's still a better vacuum than I can make in the lab with a baked out stainless steel system and turbo-drag pumps.

      2. Powering through? Orbiting stuff only uses thrust, if at all, for station keeping. Fuel stations on every corner right? Oh, wait.

      I don't think this is pedantry. This is facts for adults here on a tech site, or should be. But I'll give the author/editor a tiny pseudo excuse...

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge


        Complete paragraph, the real kicker is in the last half:

        "As the movie Gravity graphically demonstrated, the impact of even a tiny piece of trash with something powering through the atmosphere can be catastrophic, and could lead to the creation of thousands of more piece of debris, creating a chain reaction that could make Earth's orbit a no-go zone."

        For some reason I don't see that chain reaction happening, those thousands of pieces debris don't really bother me when those are in the atmosphere. Drag will slow them down and/or burn them up within a very short time frame. Besides that, that is well below even low earth orbit.

        "according to the United States Space Surveillance Network, there are 21,000 objects larger than 10cm orbiting the Earth, and a further 500,000 objects between 1cm and 10cm."

        And how many of those 500,000 objects between 1cm and 10cm already de-orbited unobserved due to drag? Drag is not quite insignificant for such small objects (surface to mass ratio increases while the size decreases). And how many of those 500,000 objects between 1cm and 10cm acquired escape velocity in the collisions which generated them?

        Bottom line: I don't trust any figures coming out of the US without at least one reliable, independent source confirming them.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Re: And how many of those 500,000 objects [..] already de-orbited unobserved due to drag

          Um, they're observing them.

          So : ZERO.

          Your mistrust of the US government, I applaud. Do not extend it to the scientists. They don't give a fuck about what drivel comes out of the White House, and I'm willing to bet that there's only a infinitesimal fraction (that's the scientific way of saying NOBODY) who would jeopardize their credibility to toe the Orange Carrot's line.

          The men and women who are tracking these orbital threats have the safety of the ISS astronauts as first and only priority. All other priorities are rescinded. They will not sell their souls for White House-imposed views.

        2. Bill Gray

          Re: Catastrophic

          Looking at the catalogue of orbital elements for "tracked" objects,

          it has 17547 objects in it today, most of them junk (first object listed is Vanguard 1, from 1958). The lowest objects are as small as ten centimeters; as you go up, the size limit increases (it's hard to track something that small in a higher orbit). Add higher-orbiting objects that aren't catalogued, and you could reach 50K without much trouble.

          My guess would be that the 500000 object count has to involve some extrapolation and sampling; it's not an actual enumeration. It's not as easy to verify as the 17547 count, but it seems in line with what we know about the larger objects that are individually tracked.

          In re "acquiring escape velocity" : if you have a way in which two objects at orbital speed can collide and somehow accelerate one of them to escape speed, call your patent attorney. (Actually, don't bother; I believe that inventions that claim to generate energy from nowhere are usually non-patentable, and that's what you'd have here.) The usual result of orbital collisions is just lots of shrapnel and a lot of kinetic energy being converted to heat.

          The 17000-odd objects get observed frequently, from many countries. Your suspicion of my nation's government is obviously sensible. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    2. Martin Gregorie

      If you want fictional education about dense space-junk problems, read Ken Macleod's "Fall Revolution", a set of four related novels The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, The Sky Road -a major background theme is the impossibility of spaceflight for 200-250 years after a destructive space war in Earth Orbit. Quite apart from Macleod being one of the few authors to give this problem serious treatment, the books are a rattling good read.

  4. Obesrver1

    clean up your space or it's the naughty mat for you.

    So someone has to send up a wide-mouthed spacecraft to scoop up all the space-crap.

    it will need to keep moving faster in low orbit than the junk so it can catch it.

    Crush the captured content, and replace spend fuel.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    GPS is NOT a synonym for GNSS (global navigation satellite system), it's one particular implementation of a GNSS by the USA. To call the European Galileo system a "GPS" is a contradiction in terms. I mean, that would be as bad as calling a Dyson a "Hoover".

    1. Mark 85

      Re: GPS?

      In common parlance, a Dyson is a "Hoover" or actually the generic "hoover". So it could be argued that GPS is the common term.

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: GPS?

      "GPS is NOT a synonym for GNSS"

      That's only because most people have never heard of the acronym GNSS. If you're trying to prevent GPS from becoming a generic term meaning "global positioning system", then you're at least ten years too late, probably twenty.

      Sometimes terms enter popular usage in ways that are technically incorrect, this is one of them. As far as I'm aware, the technical meaning of any of these terms has never been re-introduced.

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: GPS?

      the US GPS system used to be known as NAVSTAR GPS. Some people still call it NAVSTAR.

      GPS is a pretty pretty generic name, GNSS is a messy workaround for someone asserting IP rights on a generic name shortening of a longer one that should have been tossed out (the USA spent quite a long time building the NAVSTAR name, but media called it GPS and the name stuck)

      GPS is as generic as "tissue" or "vacuum cleaner". NAVSTAR is not.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    mesh together

    You keep spelling 'mash' wrong.

    I worked at a place that planned to launch lots more of its sats. It was calculated that little thrusters were needed in future models to prevent solar winds and atmospheric drag from bunching up all the crafts together. I was terrified of what would happen if there was a bug in any flight or control systems code. Suddenly the potential for harm goes WAY up. Hopefully those 12000 are launched slowly enough for debugging time.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: mesh together

      And hopefully in a low enough orbit that they burn up in ~5 years no matter what.

      12k at launch, probably 2k unresponsive after 1-2 years and no active option to track them or to manoeuvre them..

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: mesh together

        They'll have to come up with a way of sweeping up all that cosmik debris. It's going to be called "The Satellite Zappa".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: mesh together

      As I seem to recall, SpaceX already has two up being debugged already.

  7. ma1010

    Traffic jam?

    It sounds to me like a serious potential problem, but I don't know enough to have an informed opinion as to whether it would work or not.

    In any event, kudos to the author for the Zappa reference!

  8. RLWatkins

    Sorry, I was picking my mandible up off the floor...

    ... which delayed posting of this comment.

    Anyone remember that Iridium sat banging into that out-of-commission Russian recon bird? That's where many, maybe most, of those 10cm pieces of junk came from, by the way.

    Anyone know any statistics? Anyone care to calculate the disjunctive probability of non-mutually-exclusive events, in this case collisions, when the sample size increases by a factor of six?

    Anyone recall that our (US) FCC has already lost its tiny little collective mind? Or whether were they ever competent to manage a "space debris policy" to begin with?

    Yep, folks, once again it appears that Hell is full and the dead are walking the Earth. So, hey, what's new?

    1. GruntyMcPugh

      Re: Sorry, I was picking my mandible up off the floor...

      @RLWatkins: "Anyone remember that Iridium sat banging into that out-of-commission Russian recon bird?"

      Yeah, I wonder how manoeuvrable Iridium birds are, because the collision was fairly predictable . I used to maintain (when I worked for a bunch of PhD Astronomers) 'Satellite Tool Kit' which had a database of all (non secret) objects in orbit and their trajectories.

      1. Orv Silver badge

        Re: Sorry, I was picking my mandible up off the floor...

        IIRC a big complaint about Iridium was that they were very reluctant to change their birds' orbits to avoid potential collisions.

        BTW, as you probably know but I think some other commenters might not, the term for the potential catastrophic situation we're discussing is "Kessler syndrome." Probably worth a Google.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Can we get someone to verify these don't all have cameras? The USA and privacy are not great bedfellows. With this many nodes I imagine they could almost get realtime video of the whole surface of the planet.

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Cameras

      Don't worry your little tin foil covered head about mini comms satellites with cameras, remember there are still a few Hubble sized KH-11 telescopes looking down on you.

    2. Steve Todd

      Re: Cameras

      Any optics that will fit on a mini-sat aren’t going to be able to resolve more detail than you can get from existing commercial birds, and they can’t resolve anything smaller than a few meters in size. Something the size of a person MIGHT show up as a single pixel. I doubt you have much to worry about.

      1. Lusty

        Re: Cameras

        You sound like those photographers who didn't think camera phones could do real pictures. Technology moves on, especially for government agencies :)

        1. Steve Todd

          Re: Cameras

          @Lusty. It’s nothing to do with making the sensor smaller (smaller pieces of film/image sensors are always worse at imaging than larger, but they trade that against cost and size/weight of the camera), but rather the amount of magnification required to resolve even a 10 meter object from 400 miles away. You can’t get away with a teenie sensor and lens in this case, you need something like a telescope with a large objective lens to gather enough light.

        2. Bill Gray

          Re: Cameras

          The limit on resolution isn't in the sensor (those are about as good as they're going to get). It's in the optics. It's why astronomers want to make a hundred-meter telescope, and why spy satellites have mirrors a few meters across. Unless you rewrite the laws of physics, it's the only way to increase resolution.

          I suppose the mini-satellites could do some signal interception. They're quite small; I'd expect it to be a challenge to add anything unrelated to their stated purpose... but I could imagine it being done, or a few special-purpose sats slipped in among the 12000. That would just be a technical challenge; getting detailed images of people from orbit with ten-cm optics is blocked by fundamental physics.

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Cameras

      "With this many nodes I imagine they could almost get realtime video of the whole surface of the planet."

      In this day and age - THAT is not a bad thing, as long as it's all publicly viewable.

      We're sleepwalking into a bunch of ecological disasters and being able to keep tabs on who's breaching treaties aimed as survival of the species (it could easily get that bad - people can move away from sea level rises and extreme weather, it's hard to move away from a reduction in global oxygen levels) may well be the game changer that's needed to ensure that people actually STICK to them.

  10. Mage Silver badge

    The FCC, today approved a vast expansion in satellite networks around Earth.

    They surely do not have the authority to do so.

    Only to allow transmission from the USA according to ITU schedules.

  11. DropBear

    "As the movie Gravity graphically demonstrated..."

    ...exactly the same way the movie Star Wars: A New Hope demonstrated FTL travel is not only possible but trivially widespread.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Oh come on

      I found that that movie was a gripping tale, relentlessly holding my attention from start to (not really feasible) end.

      As far as demonstrating the threat of debris, it was a resounding success.

      As far as demonstrating the reality of getting from the ISS to whatever that other place was, yeah, that was pure Hollywood drivel.

      But the debris storm ? Perfectly realistic.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The next South Sea Bubble is on its way

    The last global satellite comms network to bet against rapid expansion of coverage by competing terrestrial networks was Iridium, and look how well that worked out - very well for GSM, not so well for Iridium investors. And just as with Iridium, I expect much the same will happen with this gaggle of satellite broadband constellations, with maybe one crawling up out of administration to serve the isolated pockets where terrestrial networks just will not go.

  13. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Why does the FCC have to approve use of Galileo?

    ...and why have they only approved use of two out three frequency bands? Is it illegal to receive signals on the banned band? Does Galileo turn off the banned band while flying over US territory?

  14. Neiljohnuk

    Not the first time they've tried.

    Motorola wanted to put up a sky-net LEO system some years ago, only to be stopped by the FCC, I wonder if this one will actually happen.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like