Updated Oct. 15 at 6:18 p.m. Eastern to include a statement from SpaceX.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX has asked the International Telecommunication Union to arrange spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites.
SpaceX, which is already planning the world’s largest low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation by far, filed paperwork in recent weeks for up to 30,000 additional Starlink satellites on top of the 12,000 already approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC, on SpaceX’s behalf, submitted 20 filings to the ITU for 1,500 satellites apiece in various low Earth orbits, an ITU official confirmed Oct. 15 to SpaceNews.
SpaceX deployed its first 60 Starlink satellites in May and plans to launch hundreds — potentially over a thousand — more in the year ahead.
The ITU, a United Nations entity, coordinates spectrum at the international level for satellite operators to prevent signal interference and spectrum hogging. National regulators submit filing on behalf of their country’s satellite operators.
SpaceX’s ITU filings contain details about frequency usage, proposed orbital altitudes, and the number of satellites it desires. The filings do not say when SpaceX hopes to launch the satellites, or other details such as spacecraft throughput and deorbit timelines.
ITU filings are an early step in deploying a satellite system, and are often made years before a company plans to build launch spacecraft. SpaceX will be required to disclose more details about its constellation when applying with the FCC for access to the U.S. market to offer broadband services, like it did with the 12,000-satellite constellation it began launching in May.
In its filings, SpaceX said the additional 30,000 satellites would operate in low Earth orbit at altitudes ranging from 328 kilometers to 580 kilometers.
SpaceX said the satellites will have steerable spot beams to link with customers, and “omnidirectional” beams for spacecraft telemetry, tracking and control functions.
Filings trigger a seven-year deadline whereby the satellite operator, in this case SpaceX, must launch at least one satellite with its requested frequencies and operate it for 90 days. Once spectrum rights have been assigned through this “bring into use” procedure, other ventures must design their systems to avoid interference with the newly minted incumbent operator.
The ITU is expected to change its “bring into use” rules during the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference, which takes place from Oct. 28 to Nov. 22 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Regulators intend to set more stringent rules for megaconstellation ventures, requiring them to launch percentages of their total constellation by to-be-determined deadlines in order to keep their priority spectrum rights.
It is not guaranteed that, by submitting numerous filings, SpaceX will build and launch 30,000 more satellites. Tim Farrar, a telecom analyst critical of SpaceX, tweeted that he was doubtful the ITU will be able to review such big filings in a timely manner. He sees the 20 separate filings as a SpaceX effort to “drown the ITU in studies” while proceeding with its constellation.
A SpaceX spokeperson declined to respond to Farrar’s comments, but sent SpaceNews a statement saying it “SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs.”
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs said in April that approximately 8,500 satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecraft, cargo craft and space station flight elements have been launched into Earth orbit or beyond since 1957, when Sputnik launched. If SpaceX launches 30,000 Starlink satellites in addition to the 12,000 it already planned, the company will by itself be responsible for about a fivefold increase in the number of spacecraft launched by humanity.
Here is SpaceX’s full statement:
“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.”