Every week, it seems, another rocket is sent into space, this time delivering rovers to Mars, tourists, or, most typically, satellites. The notion that “space is growing crowded” has been floating about for a few years, but how congested is it really? And how crowded will it become?
A physics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the director in charge of the Center for Space Science and Technology. Many satellites launched into orbit have already died or burned up in the atmosphere, yet many have remained. Although satellite tracking organizations don’t always publish the same precise figures, the overall trend is evident – and stunning.
Since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, humanity has steadily increased the number of objects in orbit each year. There was sluggish but steady growth in the second part of the twentieth century, with around 60–100 satellites launched annually until the early 2010s. However, since then, the rate has accelerated substantially.
By 2020, 114 flights will have launched approximately 1,300 satellites into orbit, breaking the 1,000 new satellites annually barrier for the first time. However, no previous year compares to 2021. Around 1,400 new spacecraft have already begun orbiting the Earth as of September 16, with the number expected to rise as the year progresses. SpaceX has launched 51 more Starlink satellites into orbit.
This exponential increase can be attributed to two factors. To begin with, launching a satellite into space has never been easier. For instance, on August 29, 2021, a SpaceX rocket delivered many satellites to International Space Station, including one developed by my students. These satellites will be launched into orbit on October 11, 2021, bringing the total number of spacecrafts to a new high.
The second factor is that rockets can now carry more satellites than ever before and at a lower cost. This increase isn’t due to more powerful rockets. Satellites, on the other hand, have shrunk as a result of the technological revolution. The vast majority of all spacecraft deployed in 2020 — 94 percent — were smallsats or satellites weighing less than 1,320 pounds.
The bulk of these satellites are utilized for Earth observation, telecommunication, and internet access. Two commercial firms, Starlink by SpaceX and OneWeb, launched around 1,000 smallsats in 2020 alone with the purpose of extending the internet to underserved parts of the globe. In the coming years, they both intend to launch upwards of 40,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit to form “mega-constellations.” Several other startups, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper, are chasing the $1 trillion industry.