Satellite Database Update: More than 3,300 Active Satellites Orbiting the Earth

February 17, 2021
satellite orbiting earthNASA
Laura Grego
Senior Scientist

An updated version of the UCS Satellite Database, which includes launches through December 31, 2020, is now available on the UCS website. This update includes the addition to the database of 651 satellites and the removal of 66, for a total of 3,372 active satellites. Commercial satellites continue to take a larger share of space; currently 78% of US satellites are commercially-owned. With this version of the Database, Starlink has more than 900 satellites in orbit, or 26% of the operational satellite population.

It’s a pretty challenging pace for our intrepid Database researcher, Teri Grimwood. Besides keeping on top of the 28 pieces of data for each of these satellites, Teri keeps an eye on what she sees as important and interesting trends. Here are some of those:

Starlink update

In the five months between August and the end of December, 2020, SpaceX completed seven more launches and added approximately 400 satellites to its Starlink constellation, taking the total to over 900 at that point. The company plans to continue launches every two to three weeks until they reach the 1,440 mark, completing the initial network. At this point, Starlink can provide services to users in high latitudes. Over the summer the company conducted private beta testing in the Pacific Northwest, and has now invited people in Canada, the northern United States, and the United Kingdom who had registered an interest to join the public beta testing of the service. SpaceX called the testing “Better than Nothing Beta,” and is focusing on rural and remote areas.

As the Starlink constellation grows, so does the concern about its effects on the night sky. The brightness of Starlink satellites has been a problem for astronomers. The sun reflecting off the bodies of the satellites makes them optically bright, particularly shortly after launch (and 60 satellites are launched at a time). This can cause glare that makes Starlink spacecraft appear as bright, moving trails in the night sky, interfering with astronomical observations.

Starlink is trying to deal with the problem. In January of 2020 it released a satellite painted black to decrease reflection from the sun, though it interfered with managing the satellite’s heat. Starting with its August 7, 2020 launch, Starlink began fitting its satellites with visors to block the sun. The visors appear to be effective in making the satellites invisible to the naked eye but does not address all the issues astronomers have. Another new approach is to twist the satellites so their solar panels thin sides face the earth during the periods when the satellites would otherwise be most reflective, limiting glare.

However, it is clear that the problems posed to astronomers by Starlink and other megaconstellations will take quite a bit more care to solve.

Astronomical associations have been involved in working with satellite operators and space lawyers to draft recommendations toward international policy on satellite constellations.

OneWeb constellation update

Following up from our post in May, the One Web story continues to evolve. In July, 2020 OneWeb was acquired by a partnership between the British government and Bharti Global, bidding together to purchase the bankrupt mega-constellation startup and return it to operations.

The UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government’s main reasons for investing in the company were commercial and strategic: “the provision of broadband to people in remote areas” as well as on planes and boats. There has also been debate around the possibility of the UK using OneWeb as a global navigation system. But there is strong feeling in the UK space industry that repurposing OneWeb as a navigation system is not financially or practically feasible, and interest in exploring domestic alternatives since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has raised questions about assured access to the EU’s Galileo’s military-grade encrypted signals. In September a spokesman indicated that the UK would not participate in the EU’s Galileo program, and that the government was leaning toward a “sovereign space program.”

With a launch in December of 2020, OneWeb added 36 more satellites to its constellation.

Africa in the satellite news

Every year new countries join the spacefaring club. (See the slider on the Database homepage for a snapshot.) Approximately 90 countries now own or have owned satellites in space. While a number of countries in Africa hosted space activity, mainly for other countries, since the early space launch years, and Africans have made use of satellite services for decades, increasing numbers of African countries are developing and obtaining satellites of their own. Since late 2019, three African countries for the first time have their own satellites, all involved in earth observation applications.

In November 2019 Sudan’s first satellite, the Sudan Remote Sensing Satellite (SRSS)-1, was put into space as a passenger on a larger Chinese launch. The satellite was developed and built in China for the Sudanese and will perform civil and military functions such as mapping, resource management and security surveillance. Sudan does lease several transponders on an Arabsat satellite for communications purposes.

The same month, Rwanda’s first satellite, RwaSat-1, was deployed from the International Space Station. Designed and built by a team of Rwandan engineers with assistance from Tokyo University, the cubesat will help the Rwandan government with meteorology and monitor water resources, natural disasters and agriculture.

In December of 2019, Ethiopia’s first satellite was a passenger on a Chinese launch, the Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite (ETRSS-1). Most of the manufacturing costs were covered by China, and it was designed by both Chinese and Ethiopian engineers. ETRSS-1 will gather data for agriculture, mining and environmental protection.

In December of 2020 a second satellite, ET-SMART-RSS, was launched, with the stated purpose of providing “earth observation services to China and African countries, as well as strengthen collaboration between ESSTI and SMART who have set out to jointly do business in Africa.” The Ethiopian Space Science & Technology Institute (ESSTI) worked with the Beijing Smart Satellite Technology (SMART) company to develop the approximately 10 kg satellite. ESSTI will receive data directly through its ground station in Addis Ababa.

All three countries have hopes of establishing national space industries.

The featured image in this blog is courtesy of NASA