View the full-size version of the first visualization to see in full detail.
Satellites rarely get much attention, but they're the hubs that keep our modern world connected. Just how many satellites are orbiting around Earth? Who’s launching them? And, what exactly are they doing up there anyway? These are good questions. Let's dig in.
Today's visualization comes to us from Carey Spies, and while it is based on older data, it provides a useful breakdown of the types of satellites that orbit the Earth.
There are now nearly 1,500 satellites in orbit in 2017, and if SpaceX's plans for a 4,425-satellite communications network come to fruition, our planet’s exosphere will become even more crowded.
WHAT DO SATELLITES ACTUALLY DO?
Satellites are launched into space for a number of reasons.
They do everything from military reconnaissance to keeping our GPS systems working properly. The truly global scope of telecommunications wouldn’t be possible without our expansive network of orbiting satellites. For example, O3b Networks’ 12 satellites provide broadband internet service to emerging markets.
WHO'S LAUNCHING SATELLITES?
The United States, with nearly 600 operating satellites, has clearly won the space race in this sense. That said, everyone from Azerbaijan to Vietnam now has equipment in orbit, and the list keeps growing.
The change over time, seen in this interactive map, shows that now practically everyone is in the game:
Launching rockets used to be the sole domain of nations, but the privatization of spaceflight has dramatically increased the number of commercial satellites in orbit. Iridium Communications, for example, has a constellation of 70+ operational satellites.
ANXIETY IN THE EXOSPHERE
Operating satellites are only one part of the equation. Sputnik I was launched into space nearly 60 years ago, and as one might guess, a lot of obsolete and dead equipment has built up over that time. The United States Space Surveillance Network estimates that there are 21,000 objects larger than 10cm orbiting the Earth. An increase in “space junk” could have major implications, as even tiny objects can cause severe damage to equipment.
"We must cooperate now to guarantee economically vital spaceflight."
– Brigitte Zypries, German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy
Another looming issue is the potential weaponization of space. Until now, nations have operated under the “gentlemen’s agreement” that nothing launched into space should be weaponized, but the U.S., China, and Russia have all been accused of taking steps towards putting destructive objects into orbit. Beyond the obvious implications of conflict in space, damaged satellites would also exacerbate the aforementioned “space junk” problem.
WHAT'S ON THE HORIZON
While companies like SpaceX are looking for ways to reduce the overall cost of launching rockets into space, other innovations may also make it easier than ever to put structures into orbit. The Archinaut Program – which received $20 million in funding from NASA – is looking at ways to manufacture and assemble structures in space.
One thing is for certain; space is about to get a whole lot more crowded.