SpaceX has made a filing with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – the body that coordinates frequency allocations to avoid interference – noting that it is to add 30,000 extra spacecraft to the 12,000 already planned for its Starlink constellation. The additional satellites will operate in a low Earth orbit at altitudes up to 580 km.

While Starlink is a communications constellation which hopes to gain military users, a separate announcement indicated that the portents are good for large-scale Earth observation constellations to gain major military customers in addition to commercial ones. This was the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) award of a multi-year imagery contract worth an undisclosed amount to Planet via its Planet Labs subsidiary. The 150-satellite Dove constellation gives 3-5 m resolution imagery and quick revisit times make it ideal for continuous monitoring of key areas.

Comment by David Todd: An exclamation which rhymed with “clucking bell” no doubt emerged from the data analysts working on Seradata’s excellent SpaceTrak launch and satellite database when the news broke that they might have to add another 30,000 satellites! In effect, if its plans come to fruition, SpaceX will single-handedly put up the number of the world’s active spacecraft in orbit by an order of magnitude (ten times)! Mind you, there are orbital congestion and light pollution issues to think about before such a constellation becomes a sure thing. A less daunting trend – although it does add yet another threat to Earthling privacy – is that military organisations might soon be able to track all movements via large-scale imaging satellite constellations. The NRO is obviously buying Planet imagery as a first step on this course.

The Starlink “train” of released satellites was visible from Earth – as imaged passing by. Courtesy: Marco Langbroek/Vimeo