How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2017?

Satellites orbiting the Earth

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

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 the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are 4 635 satellites currently orbiting the planet; an increase of 8.91% compared to last year.

So far in 2017, UNOOSA has recorded 357 objects launched into space. This is almost 50% more than have ever previously occurred in a single year, and there are still a significant number planned during the rest of the year.

This increase is fuelled by small satellites and cubesats. New technology has significantly reduced the cost to design, build and launch these, and this has been accompanied with an increase in commercial providers becoming involved in the market. A report issued earlier this month by the Satellite Applications Catapult predicted that 1 300 of these satellites will be launched over the next three years. If you consider that just under 7,900 objects have been launched into space, this would equate to 16.5% of the total launches over the last 60 years!

How many of these orbiting satellites are working?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) keeps a record of the operational satellites and you may be surprised to know that only 37.5% of the orbiting satellites are active, just 1 738 according to the August 2017 update.

This means that there are 2 897 pieces of junk metal hurtling around the Earth at high speed!

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

  • Communications: 742 satellites
  • Earth observation: 596 satellites
  • Technology development/demonstration: 193 satellites
  • Navigation/Positioning: 108 satellites
  • Space observation: 66 satellites
  • Earth science: 24 satellites
  • Space science: 67 satellites
  • Space observation: 9 satellites

Although, it should be noted that some of the satellites have multiple purposes.We’ll examine the Earth observation category in more detail in a future blog.

What is Technology Development/Demonstration?
This is quite an intriguing purpose as it should give an idea of what is happening in the industry, and perhaps unsurprisingly the UCS data has little information on what these satellites are actually doing. However, some insights can be gained by looking at the operators of, and countries controlling, these satellites.

Looking at the uses for these satellites:

  • 33 have military uses with 80% of these being the USA, the rest from China, Russia and France.
  • 56 have government uses and most of these are operated by National Space Agencies, or associated bodies. China has 52% of these satellites, followed by USA.
  • 65 have Civil uses and these are mostly run by University’s or similar educational establishments.
  • 39 have Commercial uses.

There are 33 different countries operating technology development/demonstration satellites with the USA leading the way having 63, followed by China with 41 and Japan with 19. After this it is mostly just one or two satellites for each country.

Who uses the satellites?
The four categories of users in the previous section can also be reviewed for all satellites, such that:

  • 788 satellites are listed as having commercial uses
  • 461 with government uses
  • 360 with military user; and
  • 129 with civil uses

Although, it should be noted that almost 14% of the satellites are listed as having multiple uses.

Which countries have launched/operate satellites?
According to UNOOSA 70 countries have launched satellites, although this is slightly complicated by the fact that a number of satellites have also been launched by various institutions such as the European Space Agency.

Looking at the UCS database, there are 66 countries listed as currently operating satellites, which means around 25% – 33% of the world’s countries have eyes in space (depending on how you define a country/territory!) There is an interesting infographic on the UCS site showing the change in countries operating satellites between 1966 and 2016.

In terms of countries with the most satellites, the USA significantly leads the way with 803 satellites, almost four times as many as China who is next with 204 and followed by Russia with 142.

Interesting Facts!
Just a few of the interesting things we’ve pulled out of the UCS database:

  • The oldest active satellite is the Amsat-Oscar 7 communications satellite which was launched 43 years ago today! (15th November 1974)
  • Planet operates the largest number of satellites with their constellations accounting for 191 of current active satellites – although with Planet this could have gone up already! Second largest operator is Iridium Communications with 83 satellites.
  • 61.6% of operational satellites are in low-earth orbits (LEO), 30.6% in geostationary orbits, 5.6% in medium-earth orbits and 2.2% in elliptical orbits.
  • Of the LEO, 55.4% are sun-synchronous, 25.6% are non-polar inclined, 15.6% are polar, 1.9% are equatorial, 0.8% are elliptical and 0.1% are cislunar (and yes, we had to look that one up too!) The remainder did not specify an orbit type.

When you look up!
Next time you gaze up into the sky looking at that stars, think about the 4,500 or so hunks of metal twinkling up there too!

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

If you’d liked the updated details for 2017, please click here.

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!