As of May the 4th (be with you) 2023, the satellite tracking website “Orbiting Now” lists 7,702 active satellites in various Earth orbits. A deeper dive into numbers of satellite that are in space reveals how small satellites have come to dominate low Earth orbit.
Where do these satellites orbit?
In the three main categories of Earth orbits, small satellites dominate LEO while large satellites dominate GEO.
- GEO 12%
- MEO 3%
- LEO 84%
Low orbits are easier to reach and have certain advantages for small satellites. Radio signals take much less time to reach LEO than GEO. As a result, low-orbiting communications satellites can deliver higher-quality internet service. Being closer to Earth also lets satellites communicate with Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) devices despite these devices’ low-power radios.
What do these satellites do?
Satellites can perform several missions depending on their payloads. The five most common primary missions include:
|Mission||Number of Satellites|
Except for navigation, these missions are increasingly performed by small satellites. For example, 80% of communications satellites and 79% of technology development satellites have launch masses below 300 kg.
Read more about the latest NanoAvionics small satellite missions: https://nanoavionics.com/news/
How many countries have satellites in orbit?
Operating satellites are registered in 105 countries or multinational organizations. The ten countries with the most operational satellites are:
|Country/Multinational Organization||Number of Operational Satellites|
This list is not so surprising as these countries have long been part of the Space Age and are home to many commercial satellite companies. Remarkable things, however, are happening at the other end of the list. At the turn of the 21st Century, only 14 nations operated satellites. Within the past two decades, satellites from 91 new space-faring countries reached orbit.
How many active satellites are small satellites?
Nearly three-fourths (72%) of active satellites fall into the small satellite category.
|Satellite Category||Number of Satellites|
This domination of small satellites is relatively recent. Only 34% of the satellites launched in the 1990s fell into this category. By the 2020s, small satellites comprised 94% of all satellite launches.
What drives this dramatic increase? Small satellites offer many benefits for innovative new space applications.