SpaceX has filed paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union to add up to 30,000 Starlink broadband data satellites to the 12,000 it’s already been cleared to put in orbit.
The filings reflect SpaceX’s bullishness on the prospects for expanding high-speed internet access to the billions of people around the world who are currently underserved — and its determination to stay ahead of competitors who have their own plans to launch thousands more broadband satellites.
SpaceX’s requests came to light in the form of 20 coordination requests passed along to the ITU on Oct. 7 by the Federal Communications Commission, with 1,525 orbital planes specified in each request. Such requests generally come in the early stages of the regulatory process, with follow-up action taken by the ITU and the FCC.
The filings set off a seven-year countdown for getting clearances and launching the specified satellites, and then operating them for at least 90 days. SpaceX wouldn’t be required to launch all 30,000 satellites, but laying out its plan now could give it a regulatory advantage if other satellite operators were to go after the same orbital slots and frequencies.
SpaceX has received FCC approval to put up to 12,000 satellites in a variety of orbital locations, at altitudes of 340 miles and 710 miles. The first 60 satellites of the operational constellation were put into low Earth orbit in May and have been going through a shakedown. Dozens more could be launched by the end of this year, and commercial services could begin by the end of next year.
The satellites described in the ITU filings would go into orbits ranging from 203 miles to 360 miles, with the aim of giving a further boost to broadband service.
In an emailed statement, SpaceX said it was just thinking ahead.
“As demand escalates for fast, reliable internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs,” the company said.
Starlink’s satellites are being developed and built at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash. Back in 2015, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced the satellite project in Seattle, he said he’s counting on revenue from Starlink to fund his grand vision of building a city on Mars and sending thousands of settlers to the Red Planet.
The project has already generated its share of controversy — partly due to the mere idea of having thousands (and now tens of thousands) of satellites zooming through low Earth orbit. Last month’s close call involving one of the first Starlink spacecraft and a European wind-monitoring satellite heightened concerns about collision risks. The newly announced satellites would appear to bracket the altitude where the International Space Station flies, potentially posing extra complications.
SpaceX says it will mitigate the risks through the use of automated collision avoidance systems, the sharing of high-fidelity tracking data with all other satellite operators, and the execution of responsible deorbiting plans
Astronomers and amateur skywatchers worry that Starlink and other satellite constellations will ruin their view of the night sky, but SpaceX says it’s working to address those worries. For example, the company plans to blacken the bases of future Starlink satellites to minimize glare, and it promises to adjust the satellites’ orbits to accommodate sensitive space science observations.
SpaceX’s efforts to capitalize on the low-Earth-orbit satellite broadband market have been fiercely contested by ventures such as OneWeb, which began launching satellites in February and is expected to launch many more in the next few months.
Amazon has its own satellite broadband effort, Project Kuiper, which is still in the process of settling on its satellite design and winning regulatory approvals. Most of the hiring related to Project Kuiper is being done in Bellevue, Wash., not far from SpaceX’s Redmond facilities.