Taxonomy of orbits; census of satellites

Alternate title: Review of Joe Lancaster’s “Who owns the satellites orbiting the Earth?”

Hello again! I am still reviewing several new essays about outer space that were published in the December 2022 issue of Reason magazine. Today, I will review “Who owns the satellites orbiting the Earth?” by Joe Lancaster, an assistant editor at Reason.

Although this particular piece is one of the shortest in this collection of outer space essays, Mr Lancaster’s report is very informative and should be read first because it surveys the main types of spacecraft that orbit the Earth today. To the point, Lancaster identifies four different categories of man-made satellite systems: state-owned satellites, geostationary and non-geostationary satellites, and Earth-observation satellites. But how many spacecraft overall are in outer space right now? Building on Mr Lancaster’s report, I will try to tabulate a rough census, so to speak, of the satellite population in each category and add the following observations as follows:

1. Satellites in non-geostationary orbit

By way of background, non-geostationary satellites can be launched into two different orbits: Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), altitudes that are generally between 200 to 2,000 kilometres above the Earth, or Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), altitudes between 8,000 and 20,000 kilometres–and this category is by far the largest one: there are literally thousands of small non-geostationary satellites in outer space right now. (For reference, check out this survey of non-geostationary satellite systems via ArXiv.) It’s also worth noting that, since these satellites move across the sky during their orbit around the Earth, a fleet of small satellites (called “constellations”) is required to provide continuous communications coverage on Earth.

Among other things, I learned from Lancaster that the largest player in this category is Starlink, which is owned by SpaceX. As of August 2022, for example, SpaceX had launched over 3,000 Starlink satellites in orbit. According to Lancaster, the Federal Communications Commission has decided that SpaceX cannot have more than 12,000 in operation at any one time, but the company hopes to raise this cap to 42,000! (In addition, Lancaster notes that Amazon plans to launch more than 3,200 broadband satellites into non-geostationary orbit. For more information, see Amazon’s Project Kuiper.)

2. Satellites in geostationary orbit

By contrast, satellites in geostationary orbit appear fixed in the sky when observed from the ground because they orbit the Earth at the same speed the planet rotates. (Also, their orbits are the furthest from us: 35,786 kilometres above the Earth to be exact.) I learned from Lancaster that two of the earliest private sector pioneers in this category are DirecTV and Dish Network. DirecTV, for example, maintains a fleet of over a dozen geostationary satellites suspended over 22,000 miles from the Earth, while Dish Network operates 11 such satellites. Other players include Intelsat, which began as a government-owned enterprise and recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, and Viasat, which operates five geostationary satellites, providing home Internet and in-flight Wi-Fi.

3. Earth-observation satellites

Most Earth-observation satellites are in low-Earth orbit (see item #1 above) and are used for both military and civilian purposes: spying, meteorology, cartography, etc. (see here, for example). According to this 2021 report, there are some 950 Earth-observation satellites in all, with the largest number belonging to two U.S.-based companies: Planet Labs and Spire Global. (Combined, Planet Labs and Spire Global own and operate over 300 Earth observation satellites!) For his part, Lancaster singles out Maxar Technologies, which owns more than 80 of the Earth-observation satellites currently in orbit. (As an aside, the data generated by Maxar’s satellites was used to create Apple Maps.) In addition, Lancaster also mentions Capella Space, which launched two Earth-observation satellites in January 2021. Their spacecraft collect topographical data from all over the world, multiple times per day, and provide 24-hour all-weather Earth observation.

4. State-owned satellites

Lancaster actually begins his survey with “State operators” because state-owned satellites, which are used for spying, map-making, and climate research, still comprise a large fraction of the total number of Earth-observation satellites in orbit today. (According to this 2021 report, for example, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense owns 71 such satellites, while the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office owns 39. By comparison, Russia’s Ministry of Defense owns 19 satellites, and India’s Space Research Organization owns 17.) I, however, prefer to conclude with this category because state-owned spacecraft appear to comprise a smaller and smaller portion of the overall population of satellites.

In my next post, I will survey my favorite essay from Reason‘s December 2022 outer space issue: Rebecca Lowe’s “Space is an opportunity to rethink property rights”.

satellite orbits leo meo geo

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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