By Mark Harris
SpaceX has filed documents with telecommunications authorities that show it has plans to launch 30,000 small satellites – that is roughly triple the number put into orbit by humans in history so far.
The documents were filed last week with the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency that coordinates the launch of satellites. The filings show that the space firm owned by Elon Musk plans to launch 20 sets of 1500 satellites. The plans will need approval from other bodies and it may be several years before the satellites can be launched.
SpaceX already has permission to put nearly 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, and 60 of these are already up there. It plans to use these to create a wireless internet service called Starlink.
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The firm says the new satellites are to meet future internet demand, but they will also be well situated for Earth observation. As they will be between 330 and 580 kilometres above Earth, they could be used for taking high-resolution pictures or video of the surface.
Such orbits pose little risk of creating long-term orbital debris because the atmosphere there is thick enough to drag satellites or pieces of space junk down where they will burn up. SpaceX is also making the satellites black to reduce their impact on astronomical observations. However, the number of satellites being proposed is unprecedented.
“With that many satellites, there does need to be a very, very close look at the collision risk, disposal and re-entry risks,” says Hugh Lewis at the University of Southampton, UK. “SpaceX will have learned a lot from their first generation of 60 Starlinks, but the more satellites you have in a given volume of space, the more close approaches you will have.”
SpaceX told New Scientist that demand for fast, reliable internet is escalating and that it is “taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs”.