These are the more than 8,000 satellites that orbit the Earth

satellites

From the fifties to today many satellites that have been launched and the number is increasing due to the lowering of these launches or the improvements they allow. But how many satellites are in orbit around the Earth today? What are they and what do they offer? What orbit are they in and who has sent them? Next, we compile all that there are but also the problems that they generate beyond the advantages.

We can divide the satellites according to many criteria. The main one is to do it by type since each one occupies its place in space with a function. There are many different types of satellites and they are used for all areas today. For example, navigation satellites that allow us technologies such as GPS or GLONASS. Communications satellites or meteorological satellites that are used to know and record the earth’s climate or weather. In addition, there are many others such as reconnaissance used by intelligence or military organizations, satellites used as space weapons…

In addition, they can also differ in their orbit depending on whether they are in low, medium or geostationary orbit. Most of them are part of Low Earth Orbit or LEO. What does this mean? It is an orbit that is between 200 and 2000 kilometers from the surface of the earth. Most of the satellites are in this orbit, although communication satellites are generally the ones in others such as the geostationary orbit, for example.

First satellites

The first satellite to go into orbit was Sputnik, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as part of the Soviet Union space program. It was launched on October 4, 1957 and was about 58 centimeters in diameter and weighed about 80 kilos. The first version took 98 minutes to orbit the Earth and its main mission was to obtain information about the upper layers of the atmosphere. But it was not the only one and the USSR Sputnik Program included many launches in total.

Sputnik

The second was Sputnik 2 carrying the bitch Laika to make it the first being to enter orbit. It was launched on November 3, 1959 and was the first spacecraft capable of transporting biological material. He did it in a capsule four meters high with two meters in diameter and with several compartments, among which was the sealed cabin where the animal traveled. After this launch, many more came from 1958 to 1961, although the first three are generally spoken of as the most important for history.

The United States took a little longer to launch its first communications satellite and did so in 1960. Echo 1 was launched on August 12, 1960.

how many satellites are there

From the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (an organization part of the United Nations and based in Austria) we can check how many satellites there are at any given moment, but also what they are, to which country they belong or what their status is, whether or not they are in orbit at the time of the query… It is a freely accessible database where we can filter by year, we can choose to see where they have been sent from, which countries have sent them, whether or not they are in orbit, etc.

There are currently around 8,000 satellites in orbit in addition to around 4,000 that are no longer in orbit but have been collected in the updated database that you can consult at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

satellites

Why are there so many? Satellites in orbit have grown rapidly in recent years for a clear reason: they are getting cheaper to launch. The cost of launching these satellites has decreased and it is not only the states that are in charge of doing it, but there are private companies that have a large number of them, as is the case of SpaceX with Starlink. The growing number of them has advantages at the level of improvement in many services but it is also a common concern when it comes to managing traffic and space debris, as we will explain later. In fact, there are more than 4,000 satellites currently not operational and that they have already become accumulated space junk.

By countries

Among the countries with the most satellites in orbit we find some like France (with around 164) or others like Germany with about a hundred, for example. Also India has 124 satellites at the time of writing this article… Although the countries or regions with the most satellites in orbit are China (with more than 700) in addition to others such as Russia (around 3,600) and the United States with some 5,500 in orbit. Thanks to the mentioned database we can know that Spain it has 29 satellites of the total. The last one to be launched was in July 2021 and is the NEPTUNE satellite launched in order to face maritime security challenges. But it is not the only one and from the UNOOSA.org website we can consult all the satellites in Spain and the vast majority of them are currently in orbit.

We simply have to use the filter of the web page linked in previous paragraphs and we will be able to see which countries have satellites in orbit but also how many do they have, what are they and what is their mission in space.

Filter by countries

Satellites and companies

Not only have governments taken it upon themselves to launch satellites today, but low costs involved in putting them into orbit has made many private companies do it. This is the case of SpaceX as the best known but it is not the only one and there are others such as OneWeb, StarNet or Amazon. In total, these companies plan to launch more than 100,000 satellites in the next few years.

The best-known case is that of Starlink, a constellation of satellites launched in order to offer high-speed Internet throughout the world, with speeds of up to 1 Gbps with a latency of 25 ms. Starlink even intends to reach isolated areas or to areas that have suffered natural disasters, but it is also an advantage over coverage by plane or ship. The intention of the project is to have around 12,000 satellites in the 2020s.

starlink rural internet

Problems

Having so many satellites in orbit has many advantages, but not all of them are, there are also problems. One of the main problems generated by satellites in orbit is the space debris that is generated and that could prevent new rockets from being launched. Space debris encompasses all kinds of objects that are in space, in Earth’s orbit, and that have no assigned useful function. That is to say, all kinds of debris caused by fragmentation but also ships that are not working, it is launch vehicles that no longer fulfill a function, etc. In addition, no solution has been found to clean up this chaos and it has become a matter of concern since finding a remedy is very expensive and complicated.

But it is not the only problem and there is another: the remains caused by the multiple accidents. It is not easy to manage traffic with thousands of satellites in orbit and there are more than 128 million debris currently orbiting in space. As time goes by, there are more accidents and this leads to more debris in orbit, increasing the chances that a crash will lead to a chain effect.