SpaceX's Starlink internet-satellite constellation may end up being even bigger than we thought — a lot bigger.
The company already has permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch up to 12,000 Starlink craft to low Earth orbit. And SpaceX recently filed paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for up to 30,000 additional Starlink satellites, SpaceNews reported yesterday (Oct. 15).
It's unclear how many Starlink satellites SpaceX will actually build and launch, however. Submitting to the ITU — a United Nations agency that, among other things, manages the global satellite radio-frequency spectrum — is a preliminary step, as SpaceNews noted. ITU approval would have to be followed by a thumbs-up from the FCC, which regulates interstate communications in the U.S.
And there's no guarantee SpaceX will end up launching the already-approved 12,000 satellites. Elon Musk, the company's founder and CEO, said earlier this year that economic viability could come with a constellation of about 1,000 satellites.
But still, launching even a fraction of the potential 42,000 Starlink craft would fundamentally change the orbital population. Just 2,000 operational satellites currently circle our planet, and fewer than 9,000 objects have launched since the dawn of the Space Age, in 1957, according to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs.
The Starlink constellation is already being assembled. In May, SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in the network, and the company plans to loft the next few batches of 60 soon, likely before the end of the year.
And SpaceX isn't the only company with megaconstellation ambitions. For example, both Amazon and OneWeb plan to establish big (but not Starlink-big) networks of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit as well.
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Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.