The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX’s request to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites into orbit, a major regulatory hurdle the company needed to clear in its plans to provide internet coverage from space.
For years, Elon Musk has talked about his plans to provide broadband internet access to the world using a constellation of satellites. Known as Starlink, this constellation was originally going to of nearly 12,000 low-cost satellites providing a terabit internet service. The first batch of these satellites is scheduled to launch in June of 2019, with the full constellation being deployed by the mid-2020s.
SpaceX officially applied to put these 7,518 satellites into orbit — alongside the already approved 4,409 — back in March of 2017. Last month the FCC indicated it planned to approve the request by circulating a draft order to that effect, which it today made official.
Along with SpaceX, the companies Kepler, Telesat and LeoSat also got approval for various services, though, with 140, 117 and 78 satellites proposed respectively, they aren’t nearly as ambitious in scale. Several others were approved, as well, with smaller proposals.
Satellite communications are nothing new, but Internet access through the technology is still slow and expensive, mainly because of the satellites responsible for ferrying data to and from the ground orbit at great distances from the Earth. SpaceX and its rivals are racing to field a new type of communications network. The idea is to, instead of sending Internet traffic to just a handful of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, the companies hope to boost satellite Internet speeds by using many cheaper satellites that orbit closer to Earth.
SpaceX’s approvals are conditional, though. In order to bring each mega-constellation into full use, the company needs to launch half of the satellites within the next six years. That means the clock is ticking to get nearly 6,000 satellites into orbit by 2024. SpaceX says it will launch its first batch of Starlink satellites in 2019.