How Many Earth Observation Satellites are in Space?

Space is growing market! With Google recently announcing its purchase of Skybox Imaging, the myriad of organisations jostling to be the first to offer commercial space flights and the launch of two UK satellites last week(TechDemoSat-1 and UKube-1) it’s clear that space is becoming an increasingly congested market place.

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Have you ever wondered about the Earth Observation (EO) market? Who owns and controls the EO satellites you use? I’m sure you know the big names such as the US Government controlling Landsat, ESA’s recent launch of Sentinel 1-A, and so on, but what about the rest? In a recent blog, we used data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to calculate there are currently 3,921 satellites orbiting the Earth; of which 1,167 are active. Today we’re focusing on the EO fleet, and for EO we’re going to count any satellite whose purpose is defined as EO, remote sensing, earth science or meteorology – it’s acknowledged that some satellites have more than one purpose.

According to the UCS database, at the end of January 2014, there were 192 EO satellites, the oldest of which is a Brazilian meteorology/EO satellite, SCD-1, launched in 1993. There are 45 nations/organisations with EO satellites in space and in terms of numerical supremacy, it’s a neck and neck race between China and the USA; China controls 25.5% of the fleet compared to USA’s 23.5% – although just over a third of the USA’ s fleet were jointly launched with other countries. After the front-runners, India has 7.29%, followed by Germany with 4.69% and Russia with 3.65%.

The picture of control becomes more interesting when you look at the four user groups for this EO fleet:

  • 56.77% are listed as used by Governments
  • 25.63% are listed as military satellites
  • 6.25% are commercial satellites
  • 4.17% are listed as being for civil uses; and
  • the remaining 7.18% are listed as being shared between two of the four user groups.

However, the space landscape is changing rapidly. Since the UCS database was updated there have been over 130 satellites launched; which have been dominated by Cubesats. The cheaper costs of Cubesats have removed a significant barrier to entry for new players to space; and we’ll see more commercial organisations becoming interested in space, like Google, and countries who traditionally haven’t had a presence in space getting a foothold. In addition, governments will be looking to launch satellites to build up their own space industry, something the UK has been focussing on for the last couple of years.

This changing environment will affect everyone working in the EO industry, particularly those in downstream activities, as there will be an increased number of datasets. Downstream companies will need to secure access to the new data to ensure they stay ahead of their competitors, and in a more commercial marketplace, this will almost certainly involve a cost. Strategic partnerships are going to become increasingly important in the EO world; and so don’t get left behind, start horizon scanning now and see where you need to position your company.