Five Kinds of Things the UCS Satellite Database Can Tell You

, senior scientist | April 3, 2014, 2:23 pm EDT
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We’ve been getting a good number of questions about the UCS Satellite Database and have been happy to see it be useful as context in recent discussions about satellite imaging and the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

satellite database pic

(click to enlarge)

The Database is meant to be straightforward to use and manipulate; user’s manual here, and quick guide here.  It is updated quarterly, so can be used to provide an up-to-date picture of who uses space, how, and what for.  Examples of information that can be pulled out:

  1. About a fourth of the 605 satellites in low Earth orbits (LEO) are dedicated to imaging the earth (remote sensing, earth observation, reconnaissance).
  2. Nearly one half of the low-Earth-orbiting satellites are associated with the United States. Large constellations of communications satellites in the Iridium, Global Star, and Orbcomm networks comprise over half of that U.S. share of LEO satellites.
  3. China currently has 77 LEO satellites, somewhat more than Russia does (58).  But many countries own their own LEO satellites, including Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Nigeria, Vietnam, Venezuela, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Sweden.
  4. Most LEO satellites have expected lifetimes of 5-10 years, but over 130 satellites are still working that were launched in the Clinton era or before.  The AMSAT satellite is currently in its 40th year (albeit with significantly diminished capacity).
  5. Low-Earth-orbiting satellites range in mass from about 1 kg (a quart of milk) to 10,000 kg (a schoolbus).

The news today that NASA must cease all contact with Russia except for Space Station (ISS) operations is chilling news.  While Russia only owns about a tenth of operating satellites, it is a launching powerhouse.  About a third of satellites operating today have been launched from a Russian launch site, including dozens of U.S. satellites and those from more than 20 countries.  (This does not count the 30 satellites launched via Sea Launch, which used to be a consortium but now which is owned primarily by the Russian Energia company.)

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