Earth observation satellites in space in 2016

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972. Image Credit: NASA

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

Earth Observation (EO) satellites account for just over one quarter of all the operational satellites currently orbiting the Earth. As noted last week there are 1 419 operational satellites, and 374 of these have a main purpose of either EO or Earth Science.

What do Earth observation satellites do?
According to the information within the Union of Concerned Scientists database, the main purpose of the current operational EO satellites are:

  • Optical imaging for 165 satellites
  • Radar imaging for 34 satellites
  • Infrared imaging for 7 satellites
  • Meteorology for 37 satellites
  • Earth Science for 53 satellites
  • Electronic Intelligence for 47 satellites
  • 6 satellites with other purposes; and
  • 25 satellites simply list EO as their purpose

Who Controls Earth observation satellites?
There are 34 countries listed as being the main controllers of EO satellites, although there are also a number of joint and multinational satellites – such as those controlled by the European Space Agency (ESA). The USA is the leading country, singularly controlling one third of all EO satellites – plus they are joint controllers in others. Of course, the data from some of these satellites are widely shared across the world, such as Landsat, MODIS and SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) missions.

The USA is followed by China with about 20%, and Japan and Russia come next with around 5% each. The UK is only listed as controller on 4 satellites all related to the DMC constellation, although we are also involved in the ESA satellites.

Who uses the EO satellites?
Of the 374 operational EO satellites, the main users are:

  • Government users with 164 satellites (44%)
  • Military users with 112 satellites (30%)
  • Commercial users with 80 satellites (21%)
  • Civil users with 18 satellites (5%)

It should be noted that some of these satellites do have multiple users.

Height and Orbits of Earth observation satellites
In terms of operational EO satellite altitudes:

  • 88% are in a Low Earth Orbit, which generally refers to altitudes of between 160 and 2 000 kilometres (99 and 1 200 miles)
  • 10% are in a geostationary circular orbit at around 35 5000 kilometres (22 200 miles)
  • The remaining 2% are described as having an elliptical orbit.

In terms of the types of orbits:

  • 218 are in a sun-synchronous orbit
  • 84 in non-polar inclined orbit
  • 16 in a polar orbit
  • 17 in other orbits including elliptical, equatorial and molniya orbit; and finally
  • 39 do not have an orbit recorded.

What next?

Our first blog of 2016 noted that this was going to be an exciting year for EO, and it is proving to be the case. We’ve already seen the launches of Sentinel-1B, Sentinel-3A, Jason-3, GaoFen3 carrying a SAR instrument and further CubeSat’s as part of Planet’s Flock imaging constellation.

The rest of the year looks equally exciting with planned launches for Sentinel-2B, Japan’s Himawari 9, India’s INsat-3DR, DigitalGlobe’s Worldview 4 and NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R). We can’t wait to see all of this data in action!

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2016?

Image courtesy of ESA Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist's impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

Image courtesy of ESA
Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist’s impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

This is our annual update on the satellites currently orbiting the Earth.

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth?
According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are currently 4 256 satellites currently orbiting the planet, an increase of 4.39% compared to this time last year.

221 satellites were launched in 2015, the second highest number in a single year, although it is below the record of 240 launched in 2014. 2016 may fall slightly short, as to date only 126 launches have occurred this year. The increase in satellites orbiting the Earth is less than the number launched last year, because satellites only have limited lifespans. The large communication satellites have expected lifetimes of 15 years and more, whereas the small satellites, such as CubeSat’s, may only have expected lifespans of 3 – 6 months.

How many of these orbiting satellites are working?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) details which of those orbiting satellites are operational and it is not as many as you think! According to their June 2016 update, there are currently only 1 419 operational satellites – only about one third of the number in orbit. This means there is quite a lot of useless metal hurtling around the planet! This is why there is a lot of interest from companies looking at how they capture and reclaim space debris, with methods such as space nets, slingshots or solar sails proposed.

What are all these satellites doing?
According the UCS data the main purposes for the operational satellites are:

  • Communications with 713 satellites
  • Earth observation/science with 374 satellites
  • Technology Demonstration/Development with 160 satellites
  • Navigation & Global Position with 105 satellites; and
  • Space Science with 67 satellites

It should be noted that some satellites do have multiple purposes. We will discuss the operational Earth observation satellites in more detail next week.

Who uses the satellite directly?
It’s interesting to note that there are four main types of users listed in the UCS database, although 17% of the satellites have multiple users we are concentrating on the main user:

  • 94 satellites listed with civil users: These tend to be educational institutes, although there are other national organisations also included. 46% of these satellites have a purpose of technology development, whilst Earth/Space science and observation account for another 43%.
  • 579 with commercial users: Commercial organisations and state organisations who want to sell the data they collect. 84% of these satellites focus on communications and global positioning services; of the remaining 12% are Earth observation satellites.
  • 401 with Government users: Mainly national Space organisations, together with other national and international bodies. 40% of these are communications and global positioning satellites; another 38% focus on Earth observation. Of the remainder space science and technology development have 12% and 10% respectively.
  • 345 with military users: Again communications, Earth observation and global positioning systems are the strong focus here with 89% of the satellites having one of these three purposes.

Which countries have launched satellites?
According to UNOOSA around 65 countries have launched satellites, although on the UCS database there are only 57 countries listed with operational satellites, again some satellites are listed with joint/multinational operators. The largest are:

  • USA with 576 satellites
  • China with 181 satellites
  • Russia with 140 satellites

The UK is listed as having 41 satellites, plus we’re involved in an additional 36 satellites that the European Space Agency has.

Remember when you look up!
Next time you out at look up at the night sky, remember that there is over two million kilograms of metal circling the Earth between you and the stars!

Shrinking Satellites

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

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

Satellites, like Dairy Milk, Mars Bars and Snickers, are getting smaller these days. Factors contributing to this shrinkage include new technology, continued miniaturisation of computing components and increased launch costs – whereas smaller size equals less weight and less weight equals lower costs.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database at the end of August 2015, the total launch weight of all satellites still in orbit is approximately two and half million kilograms! A sobering thought given that most of these are travelling in excess of seventeen thousand miles per hour! The Guinness Book of Records lists the heaviest commercial satellite as TerreStar-1 that had a launch mass of 6 903.8 kg in 2009; whereas the heaviest payload is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Telescope that had a weight of 22 753 kg when launched in 1999. Although, it should be noted there are number of large military satellites in space whose launch weight cannot be verified. However, everyone can agree that these satellites are large and heavy!

Smaller satellites have been around since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 when 92 smaller satellites were launched in a single year that the numbers became significant. There are a number of categories of small satellites:

  • Minisatellites have a mass of between 100 kg and 500 kg.
  • Microsatellites have a mass between 10 kg and 100 kg.
  • Nanosatellites have a mass between 1 kg and 10 kg.
  • Picosatellites have a mass between 0.1 kg and 1 kg.
  • Femtosatellites have a mass between 10 g and 100 g.

Smaller satellites do have technical challenges. These include shorter overall life, limitations on propulsion and manoeuvring capabilities, less computing power and very low bandwidth communication systems. There have been a number of innovative solutions developed to respond these challenges, for example the UK company Oxford Space Systems have developed deployable structures, such as antennas and solar panels, based on the principles of origami using ‘shape memory’ materials. This has resulted in lighter, simple and cheaper deployable structures, for example, they have a parabolic antenna scalable up to twelve metres.

Technical issues are not the only challenges for small satellites, the regularity framework has not yet adapted to the changing market. As we’ve discussed previously, within the UK the Outer Space Act 1986 details the regulations for satellite launches. These are based around large satellites, and are not at all favourable to small satellites. The UK Space Agency recently issued a series of recommendations on how the regulatory approach might be tailored for smaller satellites.

Smaller satellites offer a more flexible, and cheaper, way of getting sensors and experiments into space. While this is great for smaller companies and educational institutes; commercial organisations are also taking advantage of this new trend. It will be interesting to see if the trend for smaller satellites continues to grow or, like mobile phones, the miniaturisation ceases and they get bigger again!

How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2015?

Image courtesy of ESA Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist's impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

Image courtesy of ESA
Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist’s impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

If you’d like the updated details for 2016, please click here.

A satellite can be defined as an artificial body placed in orbit around a planet in order to collect information, or for communication. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) monitors, and maintains a searchable database of, objects launched into space. According to UNOOSA, at the end of August 2015, there were 4 077 satellites orbiting the Earth, which equates to 56.63% of all satellites ever launched.

Of the satellites no longer in orbit, 1 329 have been recovered, 1 539 decayed and 175 deorbited; and interestingly given the definition above, 47 are on the Moon, 15 on Venus, 13 on Mars and 1 on the asteroid EROS. Last year also saw more launches than any other year in history with 239, by the end of August this year we’d only had 106 launches.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) details the currently active satellites through their database, and they note that at the end of August 2015, of the 4,077 satellites in orbit only 1,305 are active. This means there is currently 2 772 pieces of junk metal circling above your head!

So what are the thirteen hundred active satellites actually doing? According to the UCS over 50% of these satellites have a purpose described as communications. The secondary biggest purpose is Earth observation with 26% of active satellites, 333 in total, and we’ll look at these in more detail next week. The next largest category is technology demonstration with 141 satellites, followed by navigation with 91 satellites and finally the remaining 5% of satellites have a purpose described as space science.

Commercial users account for 52% of the satellites, followed by Governments with 30%, 27% have military users and 8% are civilian users. The percentages total more than one hundred percent as some satellites have for multiple purposes. The civil users are mostly Universities or other academic institutes that have launched their own satellites.

The USA is biggest operator of active satellites with over 500, followed by China and then Russia. The UK is listed as the operator on only 40 satellites, although we also have a share in the 26 European Space Agency (ESA) ones.

An interesting point is the most popular launch sites for satellites. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia has launched the most satellites in history, over 2,000. This is followed by Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with 1,500, with this site being famous for launching both Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight in Vostock 1. After this are the American sites of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, followed by the ESA launch site of French Guiana.

The UK currently doesn’t feature anywhere on the list, but the first steps to changing this are underway. The UK Government is planning to have a spaceport established in this country by 2018; with three sites in Scotland short-listed together with Newquay in Cornwall, which is an exciting prospect for Pixalytics as we are both based in south-west. The initial focus is likely to be sub-orbital flights, but who knows what could be launched in time.

When you next look up into the sky, remember that there are over four thousand hunks of metal shooting around the Earth at speeds of many thousands of the kilometres an hour high above the clouds!

Why the Current Internet Satellite Space Race Matters?

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

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

The starting gun fired some time ago on the race to create a global satellite internet network. Last week OneWeb, backed by the Virgin Group and Qualcomm, stretched its legs with the announcement of a $500 million investment from companies including Airbus and Coke-Cola. The project intends to create a network of 648 microsatellites providing global high-speed internet and telephony services, to ensure everywhere on the planet has access. It’s planned these will be launched in batches, starting in 2017 with go live in 2019.

However, OneWeb isn’t the only runner in this race. Elon Musk’s Space X company, backed by Google, also has plans for a 4 000 strong internet satellite network; testing is due to begin in 2016 and current plans have it reaching full capacity around 2030.

These two developments could signal a change of pace in the satellite industry, as they will both be using mass produced satellites. Although neither project has realised the specifications for their microsatellites, some details are available. Both networks will be in Low Earth Orbits of around 1100 to 1200 km, weights will also be similar with OneWeb’s at 150 kg and Space X’s slightly more at around 200 kg. The microsatellite size is expected to be around half a square metre – although little has been announced about this to date; Airbus was recently awarded the build contract for OneWeb. Both constellations plan to use the microwave frequency Ku band, although Space X has also indicated interest in the Ka band.

Apart from mass production, the other element of these networks worth thinking about is the sheer quantity of satellites involved. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs recorded 239 satellites launched last year, and this was the greatest number ever launched in a single year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists last satellite database, from 31 January 2015, there are current 1 265 satellites in orbit around the Earth. Therefore, if both of these projects cross the finish line, they will more than quadruple the current number of satellites.

More objects in space increases the likelihood of potential collisions and impacts, and increases the potential space junk and debris in the atmosphere – although, OneWeb has already announced plans for deorbiting its satellites at end of life. This increase of objects in LEO does bring to mind the Kessler Syndrome hypothesized by Donald Kessler in 1978. He proposed a scenario where the density of objects in LEO is so great that the debris from a single collision between two objects would set off a cascade of subsequent collisions so great, that it would prevent any further spacecraft from passing through the LEO area; as explored in the 2013 film Gravity. This level of satellite concentration will need careful managing and monitoring.

In terms of Earth observation, the satellites will probably cause minimal impact. Due to their size, they will show up as rogue pixels on very high-resolution images, but wouldn’t register on the coarser resolution of systems such as Landsat. In terms of frequency bands, the Ku band isn’t generally used for Earth observation; although the altimeter, ALTIKA, onboard the joint French and Indian SARAL mission does operate at the Ka band and any use of that band by the Space X project will be worth watching. This isn’t the first time Earth observation has had to fight its corner for bandwidth, there is an ongoing battle with mobile data companies for use of these microwave frequencies that could also be used for wireless data transmission.

The internet satellite space race is an event that must be watched, it will change the satellite and telecommunication industries; and has the potential to change fundamentally what orbits the Earth.

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.

How Many Satellites are Orbiting the Earth?

As we discussed last week, the European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel-1A satellite is due to be launched tomorrow night from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. This got me wondering, how many satellites are orbiting the earth?

It turns out there are two organisations who can help answer this question; the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

The UCS is a non profit alliance of citizens and scientists working to design innovative solutions to the world’s challenges. On their website they maintain a database of active satellites; alongside information on their ownership, purpose and vital statistics.

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

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

According to the UCS database, as of the 31st January 2014, there were 1,167 active satellites in orbit. Of these sixty-one have a purpose defined as Earth Observation, a further sixty-eight are defined as remote sensing, fourteen as meteorology and forty-nine relating to earth science. This gives almost two hundred satellites providing information about our planet, one must have data you could use and benefit from?

Fifty percent of the active satellites are in low earth orbits, at altitudes between 160km and 2,000km, and they take between ninety and one hundred and twenty minutes to orbit the earth. Almost forty percent are in geo-synchronous orbits between 35,000km and 36,000km altitudes, taking one day to orbit. The remainder are either in medium earth or elliptical orbits.

Satellites are generally owned by governmental bodies or private corporations; interestingly over 30 universities own satellites. There are fifty five countries who can claim to be in space, others may also make that claim through the eighty satellites managed by multi-national agencies such as ESA. The USA are leading the orbital land grab with links to over 500 satellites, significantly more than any other country; Russia and China are next linked to over one hundred. The UK has links to twenty seven; whilst ESA has eighteen satellites and has co-launched three others.

Whist the UCS database deals with active satellites; UNOOSA keep track of every satellite launched, including manned missions. Established in 1958, its website has a searchable Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space. The oldest satellite in orbit is Vanguard 1 which was launched on the 17th March 1958. In total, the UN index lists 6,907 launched satellites, 2,931 of which have decayed and fallen back to earth, and 38 whose fate is unknown! Therefore currently 3,921 satellites are circling the earth, meaning there is almost 2,800 pieces of junk metal up there!

Last year saw the greatest number of launches in a single year with 208. With NASA recently launching Flock 1, a fleet of 28 Earth Observation cubesats; there have already been 56 new objects launched this year. It’s clear the space sector is a thriving industry, and Earth Observation is an important part. When are you going to join in? Get in touch if you want to know more.