According to Space News, SpaceX has filed a request with the International Telecommunication Union to secure spectrum for an additional 30,000 of its Starlink LEO satellites. This is in addition to the 12,000 already issued with approval from the US FCC.
These first 12,000 were approved some time ago by the ITU and the FCC, and were thought to comprise the total of the SpaceX constellation. However, this new filing demonstrates that the constellation could be far bigger than originally thought.
The additional 30,000 units were filed in batches of around 1,500, leading to 20 separate filings made by the FCC on behalf of SpaceX. According to the filings, the satellites would operate at altitudes ranging from 329km to 580km.
SpaceX has launched 60 Starlink satellites to date, and has plans in place to launch hundreds more over the next 12 months.
In a statement provided to Space News, SpaceX said,
“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.”
Does this mean all the satellites will be launched?
In short, no. The receipt of these filings by the ITU effectively reserves the spectrum for that filed operation, but only for a limited period. The applicant, in this case SpaceX, must launch and operate at least one satellite with its requested frequencies for 90 days within the next seven years.
By bringing a satellite into use in this way, other operators will be required to design their systems around this mission, so as not to interfere with its frequencies.
However, this doesn’t mean that SpaceX will definitely build and launch 30,000 additional satellites within the next seven years. In fact, some speculate that it is more about distracting the ITU.
Not met with support
Not everyone is happy with SpaceX’s strategy of filing for tens of thousands of positions. Indeed, Luxemburg based operator SES has called out the company, saying that by making so many separate filings it was deliberately trying to avoid limits on the amount of interference its satellites can cause to others.
Satellites such as the Starlink constellation which are in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) are able to interfere with those which are in geostationary orbit by stealing some of the frequency spectrum. To limit this problem, the ITU has in place a limit known as the Equivalent Power-Flux Density (EPFD). However, SpaceX has noted that this limit applies per filing, and have used that to their advantage. As an anonymous source explained to Forbes:
“Mega constellations are using the same spectrum as geostationary satellites, and as such, they have the potential to cause interference or interrupt their services,” the source says. “Regulations say that a constellation can only cause so much interference. But the ITU only says that ‘per filing’. So if I have many filings, I get an allotment of interference for each filing.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX project has not been without its criticisms in the past either. Following the initial launch of 60 Starlink satellites in May, the company as accused of adding to ‘space junk’ by placing so many new items placed in orbit at once. Scientific American estimated that, once al 12,000 satellites were launched, they would increase the frequency of collision avoidance maneuvers from a few thousand a year to around 67,000.
Indeed, collision avoidance has been demonstrated in action just last month, when a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite had to move out of the way of one of the Starlink units.