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SpaceX looks to rule space with 30,000 more satellites

The company's Starlink internet service could eventually dwarf the total number of satellites ever launched.

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This image of a distant galaxy group from Arizona's Lowell Observatory is marred by diagonal lines from the trails of Starlink satellites shortly after their launch in May.

Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

If Elon Musk's rocket company succeeds in its grand vision to blanket Earth with broadband internet raining down from the heavens, space could eventually be swarming with SpaceX's Starlink satellites. The FCC has filed paperwork with the International Telecommunications Union for the operation of 30,000 small satellites in low-Earth orbits.

And away they go... The first batch of Starlink satellites make it to space.

SpaceX

ITU Chief of Space Services Alexandre Vallet confirmed to CNET that the FCC submitted 20 filings of 1,500 satellites each on SpaceX's behalf.

The ITU is an arm of the United Nations that allocates global spectrum and satellite orbits to help keep our complex communication networks running smoothly. Each country's regulators file on behalf of their satellite companies and operators, which is why the filings came via the FCC rather than from SpaceX.

The filings come in addition to the 12,000 Starlink satellites previously approved by the FCC. Yes, you did the math right: SpaceX would like to ultimately be able to operate up to 42,000 satellites. 

In case you're wondering how many satellites are currently operational and orbiting our planet, the Union of Concerned Scientists put the number at just 2,062 as of April 1. Estimates of the total number of satellites launched by humanity come to about 8,500, which means SpaceX is aiming to nearly quintuple that figure on its own.

The ITU filings are an early step in the process of launching the satellites. It could be years before any of the 30,000 satellites described in the paperwork actually launch. 

"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," a SpaceX spokesperson said. 

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So far, SpaceX launched the first batch of about 60 Starlink satellites earlier this year to begin testing its broadband service. The astronomical community immediately became concerned over the bright, noticeable train of the flying routers. SpaceX said at the time that the satellites would become less noticeable as they rose to a higher altitude and oriented themselves for operation. It is also now working to make the base of future Starlink satellites black so they'll be less visible. 

Then there was the case of the wayward Starlink satellite that came a little too close to the orbit of a European Space Agency satellite, forcing the ESA to make an evasive maneuver. SpaceX blamed the incident on a "bug" in its on-call paging system.

Starlink could begin offering service to Northern US and Canadian latitudes as soon as 2020 before expanding to other parts of the world with 24 planned launches of satellites upcoming. 

Update, 4:45 p.m. Adds comment from SpaceX.