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!

World Record Satellite Launch

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

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

Next week the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to launch 104 satellites in one go aboard its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) that will take off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

To give an idea of the enormity of what ISRO is attempting, the current world record for satellites launched in a single mission is 37 by Russia in 2014. In addition, over the last fifty years the average number of objects launched in space in an entire year is only 138, according to the Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Furthermore these figures reveal this single mission will exceed the number of objects launched into space for the twelve months of 1996 and for the years 2001 to 2006 inclusive.

This mission was originally planned to launch 83 satellites, then an additional 20 were added to the payload and finally a further nano-satellite was squeezed in. Of these 104 satellites, 3 will be Indian satellites and the remainder will be small satellites from countries including Germany, Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US.

One of the key challenges is to ensure that they do not collide. ISRO plans to achieve this by changing the degree of angle for each batch of satellites launched. It is expected that the entire batch of satellites will be launched within 90 minutes.

This launch is a really exciting one for the Earth Observation community because it includes:

  • Cartosat 2D is the next satellite in India’s Cartosat mission. These satellites carry both high resolution multi- spectral imagers and a panchromatic camera, and the mission focus is cartography. It has a sub-metre spatial resolution, a 10 km swath and a revisit period of four days. This is the primary payload, and will be the heaviest satellite on the launch vehicle at 730 kg.
  • Planet’s Flock 3p which consists of 88 satellites, and will be the largest constellation of satellites ever launched.

Planet was in the news last week as it confirmed it had completed the purchase of satellite imaging company Terra Bella from Google. Terra Bella’s SkySat’s fleet of high resolution satellites will complement the existing global coverage of Planet’s existing courser resolution fleet. When combined with the new satellites, this will help Planet to achieve their aim of imaging the entire globe every day. Thereby, offering a wide range of potential capabilities for Planet in the satellite data reseller/supplier market.

ISRO’s launch is currently scheduled for February 15th and will demonstrate a new level of efficiency for cubesats; something that is becoming increasingly important. We’ll be watching closely, and wish them luck.

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!

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!

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.