The world has been launching satellites into space for more than half a century. With them we have managed to do spectacular things, such as creating a real-time positioning system anywhere on the planet, photos of space to create very precise maps , or even offer the Internet . But how many are in orbit right now?
The first satellites began to orbit the Earth in the late 1950s. It was Sputnik, launched in 1957, the first to see the Earth from outside the atmosphere. Until the 2010s, annual satellite launches were between 10 and 60. However, in the last decade, the number has skyrocketed, with 1,300 satellites launched in 2020, and 1,400 so far in 2021.
There are 8,029 satellites in orbit in November 2021
In total, 11,881 objects have been launched into space , most of them satellites. Of these, 3,850 are no longer in orbit, while another 8,029 are orbiting the planet. To find out the number of satellites in orbit at all times, we can consult the updated list maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) .
All these satellites are in low orbit (LEO, or Low Earth Orbit) , a region that covers 2,000 kilometers of altitude into space. Most of the launches made so far have been carried out by the space agencies of governments such as the United States or the Russian (previously Soviet). However, with the arrival of private companies such as SpaceX, the number of satellites launched and in orbit has skyrocketed, and it will continue to grow in the coming years.
The increase in satellites in orbit is due to the decrease in the cost of launching them. Private companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon or StarNet / GW plan to launch a total of 65,000 satellites in the coming years, and there are proposals pending approval for that figure to finally exceed 100,000 satellites. SpaceX has the most, offering Internet through Starlink in several countries with high speeds and low latency.
The problems of having so many satellites in orbit
Having so many satellites in orbit creates a multitude of problems. For starters, managing all traffic to avoid collisions is going to get more and more complex. In addition, it will affect astrophotography and scientific observation of space from the ground, since satellites reflect sunlight on their panels. In fact, it is estimated that 8% of the light in the sky at night could come from satellites, with one in ten “stars” being a moving satellite.
There are currently 128 million debris orbiting in space . Of these, 34,000 are more than 10 cm, and over the years there will be more as there are more accidents or those in orbit are broken by the effects of ultraviolet radiation. With a single collision, a chaotic chain effect can be generated that affects hundreds or thousands of satellites in different orbital planes.
The chaos generated by space debris could reach such a level that it could be impossible to launch new rockets into space if it is not kept under control. Because of this, traveling to other planets could be an impossible task, which is known as the Kessler effect. And, at the moment, there is no specific mechanism to eliminate that space junk.