How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2023?

Satellites orbiting the Earth, OneWeb, Space, satellite, launch

Artist’s rendition of satellites orbiting the Earth – rottenman/123RF Stock Photo

This is our latest update examining 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 the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there were 11 330  individual satellites orbiting the Earth at the end of June 2023; a whopping 37.94% increase since January 2022 when we did the last of these updates.

Given that increase it is unsurprising to note that 2022 saw the most objects ever launched into space in one year, with 2 474 objects leaving the planet. This is 36.68% greater than the previous record, set in 2021, of 1 810 objects. However, this record may not stand long as in the first half of 2023 there have already being 1 354 objects launched, and so we could be on course for another record breaking year.

The development of cubesats has driven the increase in launch numbers as they are far cheaper to build and launch than satellites were previously. However, the growth is staggering. In the last five years, since 2018, there have been more objects launched into space than in the previous sixty years of the space industry!

The table below shows the progression since the first Sputnik was launched in 1957:

Year Objects Launched Year Objects Launched Year Objects Launched Year Objects Launched
1957 2 1974 128 1991 135 2008 109
1958 8 1975 158 1992 130 2009 125
1959 14 1976 158 1993 108 2010 120
1960 20 1977 137 1994 123 2011 129
1961 38 1978 165 1995 105 2012 134
1962 77 1979 124 1996 100 2013 210
1963 72 1980 130 1997 152 2014 241
1964 107 1981 158 1998 157 2015 222
1965 163 1982 145 1999 129 2016 221
1966 145 1983 154 2000 121 2017 456
1967 159 1984 163 2001 86 2018 453
1968 140 1985 165 2002 96 2019 586
1969 138 1986 134 2003 88 2020 1274
1970 130 1987 135 2004 74 2021 1810
1971 156 1988 145 2005 72 2022 2474
1972 133 1989 139 2006 95 2023 1354
1973 138 1990 168 2007 111

As you can see from the table, if you choose to add all the numbers up, over the last 66 years, 15,946 objects have been launched into space. The difference between this and the 11,330 satellites UNOOSA lists as currently orbiting the Earth is because some of the launched objects have burnt up the atmosphere as their orbits decay – a lot of cubesats have done this; some have fallen back to Earth; some have been destroyed in space; and some are orbiting other bodies such as the Moon, Mars, comets, etc.

All of the orbiting satellites are working, aren’t they?

While you are probably thinking that it’s amazing that we have just over 11,000 satellites recording data about our planet, unfortunately, that’s not true. This is because not all the satellites currently orbiting the Earth are working.

UNOOSA don’t maintain information on working satellites, however, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) keep a record of the operational satellites. Unlike UNOOSA who constantly update their records, the UCS only release periodic updates. The latest update was released last week and covers the operational satellites at the start of 2023. To ensure we are comparing like with like, according to UNOOSA, 1 346 objects orbiting the planet were launched in 2023. Taking these away from the 11,330 gives a figure of 9 984 orbiting objects at the start of 2023.

According to the UCS, at the start of the year there were 6 718 operational satellites at the start of 2023, equating to 67.28% of the orbiting objects. This percentage is increasing, as expected with more objects being launched in near history, but it does mean that there are still 3 266 useless hunks of metals travelling around the planet!

For the next section, we’ll be using the UCS figures for the start of January 2023.

What are all these active satellites doing?

Using the UCS update, as at the end of December, the main purposes for the operational satellites were:

  • Communications: 4 823 satellites – increase of 53.84% since January 2022.
  • Earth observation: 1 167 satellites – increase of 13.30% since January 2022.
  • Technology development/demonstration: 414 satellites – increase of 7.53% since January 2022.
  • Navigation/positioning: 155 satellites – increase of 0.64% since January 2022.
  • Space science/observation: 109 satellites– increase of 0.93% since January 2022.
  • Earth science: 25 satellites – an increase of 13.64% since January 2022.
  • Other purposes 25 satellites.

It should be noted that some of the satellites have multiple purposes, and they have been categorised by their main purpose.

What countries operate active satellites?

According to the UCS data there are 75 individual countries from across the globe that operate active satellites, on top of this there are multinational operators such as the European Space Agency which may increase this number. However, it is interesting to see that approximately half the countries across the world now operate a satellite – the precise figure will depend on how you determine the number countries. It shows how the democratisation of space is happening.

The top ten individual countries controlling the greatest number of satellites are:

  1. United States with 4 511 satellites.
  2. China with 586 satellites.
  3. United Kingdom with 561 satellites.
  4. Russia with 177 satellites.
  5. India with 62 satellites.
  6. Canada with 56 satellites.
  7. Germany with 48 satellites.
  8. Luxembourg with 45 satellites.
  9. Argentina with 38 satellites.
  10. Israel with 27 satellites.

The United States having the most satellites is unsurprising and is driven significantly by the Planet and SpaceX constellations, amongst others. Similarly, the UK figures are boosted through the OneWeb constellation, Argentina by the Satellogic satellites, and Luxembourg figures are through the SES SA communications satellites.

Who are the users of the satellites?

Looking at the primary users of satellites gives:

  • 5 280 satellites are listed as having commercial users – again driven by the space-based broadband companies.
  • 688 with government users
  • 588 with military users; and
  • 162 with civil users.

It should be noted this list is the primary user of the satellite. Of these, there are 305 satellites (4.5%) listed as having multiple users.

When you next look up at the night sky ….

Remember that alongside all of the amazing stars there are thousands of active, and inactive, satellites orbiting the planet and this number is increasing rapidly.

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