SpaceX has bet its future on a network of small satellites that could beam the internet down to Earth. This month, the company's plans got a whole lot bigger.
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has requested permission from an international regulatory group to operate as many as 30,000 satellites at a specific frequency, power level and location in space. The company had received prior permission from the U.S. government to operate about 12,000 satellites and launched 60 initial satellites in May.
The new batch of 30,000 satellites are set to be in orbits ranging from about 200 miles to 360 miles above the Earth, according to filings submitted Oct. 7 to the International Telecommunication Union, which allocates radio spectrum and satellite orbits. The filings did not include details of when the satellites would be launched.
A SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement that the company was taking steps to "responsibly scale" the total network capacity and data density to "meet the growth in users' anticipated needs."
SpaceX makes its money by launching satellites for commercial and government customers and ferrying cargo for NASA to the International Space Station. But company Chief Executive Elon Musk has said SpaceX's launch revenue probably tapers off at about $3 billion a year.
The global internet connectivity market, on the other hand, is worth about $1 trillion. Musk has estimated that with the company's Starlink satellite constellation, SpaceX could capture at least 3%, or $30 billion, of that sector.
Musk also intends to use revenue from Starlink to fund his passion project: a Mars spaceship known as Starship that would be capable of ferrying up to 100 people to the red planet. The company has started building prototypes of that spaceship near Boca Chica Beach in Texas and in Cocoa, Fla., and Musk estimated last month that a test launch reaching 60,000 feet in altitude could occur in one to two months.
"SpaceX is relying on Starlink to provide a lot of profit for them," said Laura Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical. "They have a lot of ambitious projects going on that they need funding for."
But the company faces daunting technical challenges to build the high-tech satellite components cheaply enough to be affordable for users, with a level of reliability that can place it above competitors on the ground and in the sky.
Several other broadband-beaming satellite constellations have either launched or are in the works, including London's OneWeb, which is backed by Japan's SoftBank Group Corp. and British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Jeff Bezos' Amazon.com Inc. has also entered the race with its Project Kuiper and asked the Federal Communications Commission in July for permission to launch more than 3,200 satellites.