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Space satellite feud escalates between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk

The cosmic carping between billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is moving from the moon to low-Earth orbit.

Amazon.com’s satellite subsidiary, Kuiper Systems, filed a scathing comment with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), accusing Mr Musk and his companies of flouting regulations with a general attitude that “rules are for other people”.

Mr Musk’s SpaceX and Mr Bezos’s Kuiper Systems are before the FCC with rival satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit to provide broadband internet access. The dispute mirrors similar sniping between SpaceX and Mr Bezos’s Blue Origin space company over a Nasa contract to build and demonstrate a human lander system for a planned return to the Moon.

The billionaires’ dispute grew more pointed on September 8 in Amazon.com’s letter to the FCC.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Kuiper’s lawyer, C Andrew Keisner wrote in response to a SpaceX filing.

The broadside included prior actions by all of Mr Musk’s primary businesses, SpaceX, Starlink and Tesla. The references relate to rocket launches and launch-pad construction in South Texas; Starlink’s antenna designs; and Mr Musk’s decision to reopen Tesla’s Fremont, California, assembly plant in May 2020, defying the county health officials’ order to stay at home.

SpaceX responded that Amazon’s eight-page “diatribe” was “wholly irrelevant” to topics before the commission. The only issue is whether SpaceX has offered adequate information about a “minor” change in the application for its next Starlink satellite configuration, executive David Goldman wrote in a letter on September 9 to the FCC. SpaceX is asking the agency to allow public comments on its system as a way to speed review of its application.

Mr Bezos stepped down as Amazon.com’s chief executive in July, but retains a role as executive chairman focused on new projects and initiatives.

In terms of the Moon contretemps, Blue Origin filed an unsuccessful protest of the Nasa-SpaceX contract, followed by an appeal last month in the Court of Federal Claims. Nasa has suspended its work on the lander project as part of its Artemis programme, which is unlikely to meet the agency’s 2024 deadline to return astronauts to the moon.

SpaceX’s Starlink unit has deployed more than 1,700 satellites to date in low-Earth orbit, a number that could eventually top 30,000 if it receives the necessary regulatory approvals and market demand warrants.

Last December, the FCC awarded SpaceX $886 million in US subsidies to support rural broadband expansion but has recently challenged some of the areas planned for Starlink service, including major airports and parking lots.

The Starlink service has customers in about 12 countries. Amazon.com hasn’t yet launched a satellite but has signed contracts for nine launches with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In July, Blue Origin also swiped at Virgin Galactic and its billionaire founder Richard Branson only days before he beat Mr Bezos to space in a suborbital flight. Blue Origin argued that Virgin’s space-tourism vehicle didn’t fly above the “internationally recognised” Karman line space boundary at 100 kilometres (62 miles) and that its cabin windows were smaller than Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. The National News

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