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!

Celebrating World Space Week!

Did you know this is World Space Week? In 1999, the United Nations declared that World Space Week would occur between the 4th and 10th October each year. It chose these two dates because:

  • On 4th October 1957 the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched; and
  • On 10th October 1967 The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies was signed – which was discussed in last week’s blog.

This annual international celebration supports events in countries around the world to educate people about space, encourage everyone to benefit from the space industry and inspire young people to get involved in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Space: Guiding Your Way is the theme for 2014 and focuses on all aspects of satellite navigation, from the GPS in your smartphone, though road navigation, shipping and disaster recovery. According to the World Space Week website there are over 700 events in over 60 countries taking place during this week’s celebration: everywhere from Afghanistan to Venezuela has an event, supported by a number of global events. The events vary from educational presentations, conferences and demonstrations through to water rocket competitions, training like an astronaut or even having coffee with an astronomer. The UK Space Agency has a ‘Tweet the Expert 2014’ event running between 2pm and 3pm each day this week.

Rumple Quarry in Plymbridge Woods

Rumple Quarry in Plymbridge Woods

Here at Pixalytics, we didn’t want World Space Week to go by without getting involved, and so we’ve taken part in the EarthCache Virtual 5K. Although, don’t let the word virtual fool you as there has been running! EarthCache aims to teach people about the world by highlighting interesting geologic or geographic phenomenon or features you can visit, and there are almost eighteen thousand such sites worldwide. To participate in the Virtual 5K run, you have to run at least 5K starting or ending at a registered EarthCache site.

Sam Lavender at the start of her 5K run

Sam Lavender at the start of her 5K run

Our closest EarthCache site is a quarry site in Plymbridge Woods, pictured above. Records indicate it has been worked as far back as 1683, and slate from here was reportedly used in the building of Devonport Dockyard. In addition to the quarry site, there is also a viaduct and ruins of a waterwheel and quarry workers cottages. To the right is the picture of Sam at the start of her 5K run.

Are you going to join in World Space Week? Have a look at the website and see if you can find an activity, or join us in the virtual run. Whatever you decide to do, remember you’re celebrating space and your part in this industry.