With the May 15 launch of 52 additional SpaceX Starlink satellites, there are now 1,677 in orbit. That's just 14 percent of the planned total of 12,000 that are expected to be in place by late 2027. SpaceX has requested a permit from the FCC for 30,000 more to supplement the fleet, for a potential grand total of 42,000.
In case you're not familiar with Starlink, it's a satellite-based, high-speed internet service that will cover underserved, rural areas as well as the more competitive urban areas across the planet. For $499 you get a router, tripod and small satellite dish; service is $99 a month.
Because the demand for buffering-free internet is high, these satellite mega-constellations won't be going away anytime soon. In fact, more are in the works. After a recent bankruptcy, the OneWeb satellite project, now owned by the British government and Indian telecommunications firm Bharti Global, is back on its feet. Already, 146 of its first-generation fleet of 648 satellites have been launched into orbit. Nearly 6,000 more are planned. Guess what for? High-speed internet, of course. By mid-2022, it's expected that that constellation will provide global online access to its subscribers.
Not to be left out of the broadband internet gold rush, Amazon will invest $10 billion in their own satellite internet program dubbed Project Kuiper. The company hopes to launch 3,236 satellites, half of which must be in orbit by 2026 according to the terms of their FCC contract. The European Union (EU) also plans a vast satellite communications network to provide its citizens with high-speed, secure internet. No numbers have been published yet to my knowledge, but it would be modeled after Starlink. I think we can safely expect thousands if not tens of thousands of additional satellites.
But wait, there's more
It probably comes as no surprise that China would also have plans to provide its people with satellite-based internet. The China National Space Administration's Tianwen-1 Mars mission recently had great success in landing a rover on the Red Planet, only the second country to do so. A senior official with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. announced in March that test satellites for the space-based internet satellite network had already been launched. When a large satellite project is proposed, a country must apply to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which manages the radio frequencies used by satellites for communications. China's application to the ITU in September 2020 revealed plans to "construct two low Earth orbit constellations totaling 12,992 satellites.," according to Spacenews.com.
Should all these projects proceed as planned there could easily be 100,000 new satellites devoted to internet services in orbit within the next decade. That's a big number. To offer some perspective, there are at present "only" about 3,300 operational satellites — a tally that began in 1957 with the Russian Sputnik. And it took 64 years to reach that number!
Concerns over the growing volume of man-made objects in low Earth orbit abound, not the least of which are potential collisions among satellites. Collisions produce thousands of pieces of debris that can strike and damage other satellites or even threaten the International Space Station and China's recently launched Tianhe-1 space station. If collisions were to become common, traveling to and from orbit on crewed missions could become too hazardous to attempt for fear of plowing into the garbage.
Closer to home, so much stuff chugging across the heavens threatens the aesthetic of the night sky as a place to escape the hum of humanity and contemplate the bigger picture. I mean really, do you want to see hundreds of satellites streaming over your tent on a trip to the Boundary Waters or the Australian Outback?
A blizzard of satellites also affects night-sky photography, both amateur and professional. When multiple satellites trail across the camera view during time exposures, data from a distant galaxy or star can be lost in the noise. Lest you think astronomical discovery is too abstract to affect our lives, satellite streaks can compromise our ability to detect Earth-approaching asteroids soon enough (they're usually extremely faint) or discover a potential 9th planet.
Recently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) brought its concerns to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, asking that it protect the night sky from future satellite encroachment. The IAU wants regulations to limit the brightness of satellites in these big constellations. They also want the companies to share information about satellite orbits so astronomers can avoid getting streaks in their images.
It's a start. If you feel the same, contact your state legislators. If you don't know who they are, you'll find help here.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.