Satellites in orbit: how many are there, what are they used for, and who owns them

Artificial satellites orbiting the Earth have become fundamental to our daily lives. These devices facilitate telecommunications, support weather forecasting, and help in studying climate trends. Over the past 15 years, the reduction in production costs and the size of satellites has allowed both the public and private sectors to launch more satellites into space, increasing our dependence on them.

satelliti in orbita nello spazio

How many satellites are in space?

Currently, there are thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. According to the Outer Space Objects Index of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the cumulative total of all launches into space up to January 2022 is 12,293. Of these, 8,261 are satellites, although other sources count up to 6,700. Notably, only half of these satellites are active; the rest are space debris.

Who owns the satellites?

A research team from Dewesoft, based on data collected from the UCS Satellite Database, ESRI, and the Space Foundation, has created a list of entities owning the majority of satellites in orbit. SpaceX, with its Starlink program, dominates the sector, owning 36% of the satellites in orbit. Other major owners include OneWeb Satellites and Planet Labs Inc. The United States is the nation with the highest number of satellites in orbit, owning more than half of the global total. 

satellite in orbita

Types of orbits

There are four main types of orbits around the Earth:
Low Earth Orbit (LEO): hosts more than 3,000 satellites, including those of SpaceX and the International Space Station.
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO): used for navigation systems like GPS.
Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO): used for communications and remote sensing.
Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO)/Geostationary Orbit (GEO): hosts 565 satellites used for telecommunications and Earth observation.

Functions of satellites

Satellites orbiting the Earth serve many different purposes:
Communications: make up 63% of satellites, used for television, telephones, radio, Internet, and military applications.
Earth observation: account for 22.1% and are used to monitor climate, natural resources, and the environment.
Technological development: 7.8% of satellites are intended to test new technologies.
Navigation/global positioning: 3.6% of satellites provide GPS services and other geolocation applications.
Earth and space sciences: a small percentage is dedicated to scientific studies.

Historical evolution of satellite launches

The first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, was launched in 1957. Since then, the number of launches has increased significantly. Until 1964, space exploration was dominated by the USA and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the number of launches increased dramatically. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a reduction in the number of launches, but since 2010, there has been a new increase due to the reduction in satellite costs and sizes.

With the growing dependence on satellites and increasing technological capabilities, it is likely that the number of satellites in orbit will continue to increase in the coming decades, fueled by ambitious initiatives from companies like SpaceX, which plans to launch up to 42,000 satellites in the next few decades.

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