Marco Cáceres di Iorio

Earth Orbit Getting Crowded

If you look at the number of satellites being launched to earth orbit over the past decade, there has been consistent growth. In 2004, a total of 76 satellites were launched (or attempted). In 2013, there were 215. That is almost a tripling of the market. But these numbers are deceptive. Here’s why. In 2004, only 17% of the satellites that went up had a mass of 100 kilograms or less. In 2005, it was 11%. Last year, about half of the satellites weighed 100 kg or less.

In short, while the world is clearly building and launching many more satellites than it did 10 years ago, a much higher percentage of them now are microsatellites (10-100 kg), nanosatellites (5-10 kg), picosatellites (1-5 kg), and femtosatellites (under 1 kg).

Up until about 2005, it was possible to talk about the satellite market as a roughly homogeneous entity. Even though there was obviously still a significant difference in size between the smallest satellites and the largest, in general even the smallest satellites weighing around 50 kg were easily identified as a satellite. Besides, there were just not that many of these miniature satellites, and so they did not tend to skew the market much. It was broadly understood what you meant when you referred to a satellite. This started to change in 2006, when 31% of the satellite launched that year weighed less than 100 kg and 23.5% weighed 25 kg or less. By 2013, 50% of the satellites launched weighed 100 kg or less and 46% were under 25 kg.

No longer is it possible to talk about the number of satellites being launched, or to forecast the future of the market without qualifying your remarks by saying something like, “Well, remember, though, there are an awful lot of tiny satellites included in the numbers.” The market has lost any semblance of homogeneity it may have once had in terms of satellite size. Now, when talking about the satellite market, it is necessary to be more specific. For example, are we talking about the traditional market where the vast portion of the satellites are small-, medium- or large-sized? Or are we talking about the new market where at least half of the satellites are miniature-sized?

For many years, I have been anticipating the start of a revolution in the satellite market, in which the majority of the satellites built and launched would be of the micro, nano, pico, and femto variety. The idea of hundreds or even thousands of these satellites going up every year has been around for the past two decades, and the satellite industry has been waiting to see when this new trend would begin in earnest. If I had to select a year for the start of this revolution, I would pick 2013. And if I had to be more precise and choose a month, it would be November 2013. It was during that month that a Dnepr and Minotaur I launched a total of 63 satellites aboard just two missions. All but six of the satellites weighed under 100 kg – all of them 12 kg or less.

The revolution has expanded in 2014. A total 191 satellites were launched aboard four missions – two Antares 120s, one Falcon 9 v1.1, and one Dnepr. That’s an average of nearly 48 satellites per mission. All but four of the satellites weighed under 220 kg – all of them 10 kg or less. There are more than 1,100 operational satellites in earth orbit. There are over 2,500 other satellites in orbit which are not operational. Additionally, it is estimated that there are more than 500,000 pieces of “space debris” or “space junk” (material leftover from disintegrated satellites and parts of launch vehicles). This is the product of almost six decades of launching satellites.

The day we will see 1,000, 2,000, or more satellites launched in one year is now much closer than many people realize. Talk about really junking up earth orbit. You ain’t seen nothing yet, and we’ll do it in a lot less than half a century.

In June, the US Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $914 million contract to build the new Space Fence Radar to track orbital debris, and thereby improve our ability to prevent space-based collisions… Yeah, kind of like Gravity. The total contract is estimated to be worth more than $1.5 billion over the next eight years. This could well end up being the best couple of billion dollars ever spent by the US government.

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