In recent months, several companies and countries have announced plans to launch a significant number of satellites into low Earth orbit. Rwanda, Canada, France, and SpaceX are among those planning to launch hundreds of thousands of satellites. This could lead to a congested LEO with over 100,000 additional satellites, if even 10% of the planned satellites are launched.
Before a satellite can be launched, it must be filed with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to coordinate radio frequency spectrum. These filings are made years in advance to ensure proper coordination between different satellite operators. Between 2017 and 2022, over one million satellites were filed for across more than 300 systems, known as constellations.
There are two potential problems with these filings. Either many of these satellites will actually be launched, which could result in environmental and safety concerns due to collisions and space debris, or operators are filing for more satellites than they actually intend to launch. This could be a strategy to gain investor attention or sell portions of radio spectrum for profit.
There are signs that companies may be manipulating these filings. For example, E-Space, a French company, has filed for two constellations totaling over 450,000 satellites, but its CEO mentioned planning for “at least 30,000 satellites.” Other companies, like OneWeb and SpaceX, have made multiple filings through different countries, potentially taking advantage of different administrative rules and fees associated with satellite filings.
The International Telecommunication Union faces challenges in preventing interference between satellites due to the large number of filings and the splitting of filings between different states. The organization is working to update its rules to address these issues.
Overall, the unprecedented scale of these satellite filings raises concerns about the potential overcrowding of low Earth orbit and the environmental and safety risks associated with the increased number of satellites.