Humans always had a fascination with space and the stars. It’s not just for mere philosophy; humans also look to space to find the answers for problems here on Earth. Humans took to space technology since its applications bring a lot of benefits. Now, there are satellites for everything from internet connectivity to archaeological study.
As you are aware of satellites’ existence, have you ever wondered just how many of them are orbiting the Earth? The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a nonprofit organization maintaining a database of active satellites in space, and according to them, a total of 2,666 satellites were in space, with 1,918 of them in low Earth orbit (LEO) as of April 1, 2020. Also, out of the 2,666 operational satellites in April 2020 that are currently orbiting the Earth, 1,007 of them were for communication services, 446 are used to observe the Earth, and 97 of them are used for GPS or navigation purposes.
And this is only for the month of April. We’ve already had a lot more launches since then. There are currently around 6,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. About 40% of them are operational, and 60% are defunct satellites or space junk. Euroconsult has estimated that 990 satellites will be launched annually over the coming decade, and by 2028, there may already be 15,000 satellites in orbit.
Before humans have always used space, with some relying on the stars to navigate, but now some satellites can be used for navigation, GPS, and a lot more applications.
More than 50% of the operational satellites are launched from Earth for commercial purposes. From that percentage, about 61% provide communications, which include satellite T.V., global internet, and Internet of Things or IoT connectivity.
Satellites for Earth Observation or E.O. purposes are next to communications, having launched around 27% of the commercial satellites. Some of those satellites are used for border security and environmental monitoring. Commercial satellites aren’t just for a single purpose. They are great for multiple purposes. It may be monitoring the aftermath of a natural disaster this week and then be imaging a contested border after.
Around 21% of operational satellites from Earth are for government and civil purposes, and 13% for military purposes.
These are the people who own Earth’s orbit. The busiest among the space operators is SpaceX. It is founded by Elon Musk and is currently the largest commercial operator of satellites on Earth. It also provides groundbreaking mission launches to the International Space Station.
One of SpaceX’s missions is to supply the world with space-based internet and boost navigation capabilities. It has launched 358 satellites as of April to do so. In August, an additional 175 satellites were launched and spanned until September 2020.
As of April, the company operated 22% of Earth’s operational satellites.
SpaceX has also announced the deployment of satellites enough to support the beta version of Starlink, the company’s satellite-based internet service, following their summer launches. Every month, it has launched satellites for one mission.
SpaceX has already launched more than 600 satellites into orbit and has plans to launch a lot more.
With its small E.O. satellites called “doves,” Planet Labs now has over 150 of them in operation. In April 2020, however, the number of satellites had exceeded 250.
Amazon, too, is preparing to launch its satellites. Jeff Bezos’s plan to launch and operate a mega internet constellation of 3,236 satellites was granted approval by the FCC in July of 2020. The plan is to use the 3,000+ satellites to provide Internet connection to the parts of the world that are under-connected.
Microsats, CubeSats, nanosats, and a lot more -for the new space race are all about small satellites. Euroconsult, a research firm, predicted that the 2020s would be the decade of small satellites. They expect an average of 1,000 small satellite launches each year.
As satellites get smaller, it’s easier to build and launch them. It may seem significant for others, but for some experts, it is worrisome.
What nations dominate the Earth’s orbit?
The top nations with operational satellites that dominate the list are the United States, Russia, and China.
The U.S. and Russia, back when they were still the USSR has led the space race during the 1950s and 1960s. Both of them are currently in the top three of the current satellite operators.
The U.S. is currently operating nearly 50% of the satellites at 1,308 as of April 2020.
China comes after the U.S. with around 356 satellites. Russia comes third with 167 satellites in operation. The U.K. also came in close at fourth, having 130 satellites.
Together, five countries own around 76% of the world’s satellites in operation.