WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Feb. 17 it is seeking to fine SpaceX $175,000 for failing to provide collision avoidance data before a Falcon 9 launch last year.
The FAA said it informed SpaceX of the planned fine for not submitting launch collision analysis trajectory data at least seven days before the launch of 53 Starlink satellites on a mission designated Starlink 4-27, which launched on a Falcon 9 Aug. 19 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Under federal launch license regulations, a launch operator like SpaceX must submit data at least seven days before a launch that shows that the probability of a collision between a launched object and any satellite or tracked piece of orbital debris is no more than 1 in 100,000, or otherwise maintain a sufficient distance from those satellites and debris. That threshold increases to 1 in 1,000,000 for potential collisions with crewed vehicles, with larger standoff distances.
According to the FAA, SpaceX did not submit that information in advance of the Starlink 4-27 mission. It was not clear why SpaceX did not provide that information for this launch. SpaceX did not immediately respond to questions about the proposed fine; the company rarely acknowledges media inquiries.
Because SpaceX failed to provide that information, it is subject to a fine that under federal statute is capped at $262,666 after adjusting for inflation. “After reviewing all of the information contained in our investigative file, we propose to assess a civil penalty in the amount of $175,000,” the FAA stated in its letter to SpaceX.
The FAA offered to meet with SpaceX in an “informal conference” to discuss the proposed fine and allow the company to submit information for consideration. SpaceX has up to 30 days to decide whether to participate in such a meeting or other, unspecified alternatives.
Collision avoidance has become a problem for the FAA and launch providers given both the growing rate of launches and increasing numbers of satellites and debris in orbit. SpaceX alone conducted 61 launches in 2022, a record for the company.
For some launches, there are days when the collision avoidance standoff distances can’t be met. “With the congestion that we have, with the packed density of some of our orbits, you just can’t hit it” on some days, Steph Earle, space policy and outreach branch manager at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said during a panel discussion at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 8. That’s particularly true of new launch operators that don’t have the experience with their vehicles needed to use the probability calculations, he added.
“They want to launch and they get their collision avoidance very late in the process, maybe a week before, two weeks before,” he said, “only to find out that it is packed and there’s no open window.”
He said there may be new technologies that can ease those problems but that broader changes in how to deal with collision avoidance may be needed. “We can’t use the same type of paradigms that we used before.”