Industries in Depth

SpaceX wants to triple the number of satellites in our skies

A photo taken by Expedition 46 flight engineer Tim Peake of the European Space Agency (ESA) aboard the International Space Station shows Italy, the Alps, and the Mediterranean on January, 25, 2016.    REUTERS/NASA/Tim Peake/Handout   ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTS8V3O

The satellites would provide super-fast internet Image: REUTERS/NASA/Tim Peake/Handout

Alex Gray
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SpaceX, the company that aims to land on Mars someday, wants to launch 4,425 satellites into our skies.

The company made an official application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a new fleet of satellites last year.

There are already 1,419 active satellites currently orbiting Earth: if SpaceX's application is successful, it will triple that amount.

Space satellites across the world
Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

What do the satellites do?

The satellites currently in orbit are launched and owned by various organizations. For example, out of the 560 US satellites, 12 are civil, 286 are commercial, 132 are government and 146 are military.

Some are there to provide voice, video and internet services between different parts of the world. Others operate electronic intelligence gathering. Some track weather patterns, helping us follow the movement of a storm, for example.

This interactive page shows you all the satellites orbiting Earth.

SpaceX wants to launch its satellites in order to provide super-fast internet to the whole world.

 Satellite SpaceX
Image: SpaceX

It wants to establish a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide.

Crucially, the speed of the connections will be much faster than we currently have here on Earth.

The company cites the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development findings, which say that giving everyone in the world access to fast internet services ensures inclusive economic growth, and will lift people out of poverty.

Have you read?

The SpaceX system will start with 800 satellites, which will provide US and international broadband connectivity. By the time all its satellites are launched even remote areas such as the north and south poles and the equator will have access to the internet.

"Worldwide demand for broadband services and internet connectivity continues to evolve, with escalating requirements for speed, capacity, and reliability. The volume of traffic flowing over the world’s networks continues to explode," said SpaceX in its application.

"Satellite technology has long helped to alleviate the inequities in availability of communications services, in part due to its geographic reach."

Isn't space going to get a little crowded?

When we think of space we think of a never-ending emptiness. In fact, our planet’s orbit is getting crowded, not just by satellites, but by space rubbish as well. Currently, there are about 21,000 orbital debris larger than 10cm. The estimated population of particles between 1 and 10cm in diameter is approximately 500,000. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.

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Some of the space junk is old satellites. There are two ways to dispose of them. The satellites that orbit closest to Earth drop into our atmosphere, and burn up on their way down. The other way is to blast them even further into space.

Some are too big to burn completely on their way down, so they are aimed towards the "spacecraft cemetery" in the middle of Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, and end their days at the bottom of the sea.

One day we may have to invent some sort of garbage truck that goes up into space and collects the rubbish. For the time being, efforts are being concentrated on preventing the unnecessary creation of additional orbital debris.

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