Who Occupies Space? An Analysis of the Number of Satellites Launched Up to May 2022

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here


 

Satellites have transformed the world in countless ways, from communication and navigation to Earth observation and monitoring climates. Satellite technology has opened up new horizons for all.

Over the course of recent decades, the industry has experienced tremendous progress and growth. However, the real boom, called “New Space”, started a few years ago with certain technology advancements, disruption caused by many different factors including: new micro satellites, decreasing cost of launching satellites to the orbit and an inflow of capital and talent to the industry.

The number of satellites above us has grown exponentially, from several dozen to several thousand, and the number of countries with space aspirations is also ramping up.

We depend in our article on analyzing data from UCS Satellite Database provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists and updated till May 1,2022.

Satellite Industry Democratization

Since the first launch of an Earth-orbiting satellite by the USSR on October 4, 1957, the space industry has been dominated mainly by the USSR and US. Until 1966, only six countries had launched satellites, while today, more than 100 countries have at least one satellite in space. This shows that the technology barrier to launching an object into space has lowered. It also shows that, on the one hand, being a part of the space industry is a strategic activity for some governments, and on the other hand, market trends are pointing toward the democratization of the satellite industry.

One of the trending sectors in the satellite industry is earth observation (EO), where EO satellites utilize remote sensing capabilities to gather information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems. It’s used to monitor and assess the changes in the environment and human landscape, and provide humans with situational awareness on the global scale. In the last half-century, EO satellite development has played an important role in enhancing our understanding of earth-system cycles, focusing on scientific research and military purposes. We have counted about 170 earth observation satellites that were launched before 2013. Since then, in the decade to May 2022, at least 966 remote sensing satellites have been launched.

Several events have driven the growth of the New Space sector. In 2013, Planet launched its first commercial microsatellites – Dove 1, 2, 3 and 4, followed by over 200 more satellites launched until recently. In 2015, Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, and the sector, which was considered strategic, opened up to private initiatives. This changed the purchasing model of space agencies, who moved from merely paying for the construction of a solution they had designed themselves, to buying the whole solution, thus making room for innovation in the private sector.

Another factor has been the initiatives of billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, followed by venture capital interest. The more they invest in the development of space technologies, the more they decrease the cost of associated projects, such as building space launchers and rockets. At the same time, they have enabled dozens of startups across the value chain that want to launch their own satellites or build solutions based on satellite data and space technologies. A good example is UP42, which is a digital marketplace for satellite data and processing infrastructure that offers for its users easy access to high quality geospatial data from multiple satellite data providers.

Although there has been a remarkable increase in the number of countries that have entered the satellite industry, the United States is still leading the industry, followed by China. Russia, which was a major competitor to the US in the 1960s, has fallen to fourth place in terms of satellite-owning countries.

Interestingly, commercial companies have launched more satellites than government and military agencies put together. Although the numbers are driven by SpaceX (2219 satellites) and Planet (215 satellites), the overall number of satellites in the commercial segment for communications and earth observation is higher than the government and military combined. And this activity has happened in just the past few years.

Top 10 Companies Launching Earth Observation Satellites into Space

Looking at private satellite companies in the earth observation sector, we have come to an interesting conclusion. The private market is dominated by the US and China. Although the US has the most satellites owned by private companies, China has more private companies in total. Planet and Spire dominate the sky owning together 338 satellites but interestingly, data suggest that China has 21 companies that have at least one earth observation satellite in orbit, with 12 companies based in the US

Crowded Sky

"Space is getting crowded" is not an exaggeration; it reflects the huge increase in the number of satellites in space. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2022 identifies lack of governance and the overcrowded space, especially at low level orbit, as a threat in the coming years. This is a threat that may have a serious effect on life on earth, given that the satellite industry plays an important role not only in the global navigation and communication sectors, but also in other fields such as broadband internet, TV, radio services, and supply chain monitoring.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Covid-19 pandemic did not have a significant effect on the flourishing satellite industry.  On the contrary, the number of satellites launched into space in 2020 exceeded 1000 for the first time in history, and in 2021 around 1673 satellites were launched, which was almost equal to all the satellites launched into space between 1974 and 2019 (1971 satellites).

As the presence of satellites in space continues to increase, many new threats and challenges have emerged. Space congestion is obscuring the stars; the night sky will appear very different and become dominated by the moving lights of satellites orbiting the earth if their number increases by a factor of 10 or more. Negatively altering the night sky impacts astronomers, environmentalists, amateur stargazers, and Indigenous groups. For Indigenous groups, changes in the night sky may adversely affect spiritual and cultural practices involving the stars. Losing 70% sensitivity in certain frequencies due to interference from satellite mega constellations is a major concern for astronomers. According to a statement published in 2007 by UNESCO and the International Astronautical Congress, "an unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right [of humankind] equivalent to all other sociocultural and environmental rights."

According to Marla Geha, a professor of astronomy at Yale University, by the end of 2021, there were more than half a million pieces of space junk orbiting the earth, moving at a speed of 17000 miles per hour. She added that although space may be large, satellites are crowded in fairly specified areas, which will increase the threat of damaging the bulk of satellites that we depend on in our daily lives due to the huge amount of space debris that could be generated from the explosion of a single satellite, and consequently may lead to a series of explosions in other satellites.

The Future

The satellite sector is one of the most important forms of human development, power, and creativity. The invaluable capabilities and advancement of EO satellites in space create a great opportunity for assessing and mitigating environmental catastrophes, and exploiting new opportunities in exploring and managing natural resources. This great progress in the space sector was accompanied by the advancement of methods and techniques for analyzing and processing satellite output, which provides great opportunities for developing and improving the speed and quality of investment of this output, by taking advantage of the various services provided by analysis companies such as UP42.

We humans must take advantage of these opportunities to enhance and develop the environment and not turn them into an existential threat to our land and our gender.

 


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How satellite data is used to monitor flooding from space

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here


 

2021 was a year of many extreme natural hazard events. The Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) recorded as many as 432, far exceeding the annual average of 357 catastrophic events recorded between 2001 and 2020. Floods dominated these events, with 223 incidents. This compares with an annual average of 163 between 2001 and 2020. During the monsoon season, India experienced a series of deadly floods that claimed 1,282 lives. July brought extreme flooding on many continents. In Nuristan, Afghanistan, floods caused 260 deaths, and in Henan, China, floods killed 352 people and affected 14.5 million. The cost of flood repairs amounted to $16.5 billion. Central Europe also suffered, experiencing a number of floods and landslides. Flooding Western Germany caused over $40 billion in damages, making it the country’s second-most expensive natural disaster, after the 1962 Hamburg flood.

The percentage of the population exposed to flooding has increased globally by 24% since the turn of the century, according to a study published in Nature. This is 10 times more than scientists previously estimated. The situation is due to both increased flooding and population migration, meaning there has been a population increase in flood-prone regions by as many as 86 million people. In addition, extreme hydrological events are predicted to become more numerous and damaging due to a warming climate. Climate change could cause river floods to become larger or more frequent in some places, and become smaller and less frequent in others. As warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate from the land and oceans, changes in the amount and frequency of heavy precipitation can affect the size and frequency of river floods. Changes in stream flow, the timing of snow melt, and the amount of snowpack that accumulates in winter can also affect flood patterns.

The increasing frequency and magnitude of floods is a huge threat to the normal living conditions of many people. Large floods can destroy farmers’ crops, damage homes, roads and other infrastructure, and injure and displace people. Regular flooding helps maintain the nutrient balance of soils in floodplains, but larger or more frequent floods can disrupt ecosystems by degrading water quality, displacing aquatic life and increasing soil erosion. By inundating water treatment systems with sediment and pollutants, and promoting the growth of harmful microorganisms, floods can directly affect the water supplies that communities depend on.

Global-scale river flood vulnerability in the last 50 years. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep36021

The role of satellite data

Satellite data have proven in recent years to be a key aid in reducing the impact of flooding. These are extremely valuable, especially in developing countries that lack good surveillance systems. In addition, these countries are more vulnerable to flooding due to the lack of adequate infrastructure. However, due to the unpredictability of extreme weather events, flood monitoring, and therefore decision-making, is much more difficult. There are two ways that satellite technology supports these activities.

Preventive measures

Based on satellite imagery, it is possible to create predictive models to identify parts of cities that are prone to severe damage. This makes it possible to plan effective evacuation and thus reduce the impact of flooding, especially near low-lying coastal cities, lower parts of rivers, and areas around dams. Hazard levels can be used to create prioritized strategies and risk assessments, as well as predict economic losses. Additionally, in the long term, drainage systems can be established. This will ensure that the most flood-prone areas are prioritized, and will enable flood risk mitigation.

Damage assessment

Rapid assessment of damage after a flood event is crucial for disaster management to coordinate first responders and other response activities, and to enable rapid rebuilding of damaged infrastructure. The use of EO data makes it much easier to determine the extent of flooding over large areas, and does not require field work, which would be very time- and labor-intensive. In addition, the areas most affected by flooding are often inaccessible, and the only way to obtain information about them is through aerial or satellite imagery. The use of satellite data also makes it possible to accurately analyze the phenomenon over time, not only locally, but also over large areas.

Accurate flood mapping requires both multi-year and current high-resolution data to assess the flood risk of specific areas. Currently, the Earth can be monitored many times each day via satellite data, and therefore provides the best support in the fight against the elements. Platforms such as UP42 have all the data needed to assess risks and counter extreme events. The information is also easily accessible.

Data overview

Optical data

Earth-observing satellites are able to capture images at different spatial scales and during different orbital periods, making each satellite sensor and dataset unique. This enables weather phenomena to be captured from multiple perspectives. Optical satellite data is the fastest source of information and provides an easy-to-interpret and measure picture of a flood event. This provides an unprecedented means of situational awareness, as flooding events can cover huge areas.

The following satellite image taken by EOMAP during water quality monitoring shows the extent of flooding in the Adriatic Sea in 2018. Copernicus Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3 satellite data were used for the monitoring. In addition, baseline satellite images (left image) were used to study water turbidity levels using the EO EOMAP processing system (right image).

Assessment of water pollution based on optical data. Source: EOMAP

Hyperspectral and multispectral data

Optical sensors capture visible blue, green and red wavelengths, as well as emissivity data through infrared wavelengths. It is the latter two wavelengths that are commonly used in surface monitoring studies, including mapping vegetation phenology, surface water, snow melt and drought monitoring. Infrared wavelengths are crucial for water studies due to their high absorption over water, and relative ease of identification next to dry land. Hyperspectral and multispectral data enable the use of useful indicators in flood interpretation. The Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) makes it easier to distinguish between flooded and dry areas. The method combines infrared and visible light observation. The photo below shows NASA Sea Level Change’s use of the index.

Use of NDWI index. Source: NASA Sea Level Change

The team was established in 2014 to improve understanding of relative regional sea level changes at different time scales. Data analysis and climate tools are freely available on NASA’s website (https://sealevel.nasa.gov/) to visualize data related to global water level changes due to ongoing climate change. With these tools, you can better understand the situation and the processes that contribute to it.

SAR

Radar imaging is an effective technique for obtaining real-time early warning information about emergency situations. Due to the frequent co-occurrence of floods, along with cloud cover, this type of data is much more effective than optical data for hour-by-hour monitoring. “Finding potential floods is a huge problem,” said Charles Blanchet, Vice President of Solutions at ICEYE. To solve this problem, ICEYE creates flood alert data and makes it available to clients, along with flood hazard data. This unparalleled dataset allows insurers to mobilize resources quickly. To achieve this, the company uses data from its constellation of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites to enable detailed observations of flood events around the world. Based on radar data, as well as data provided by other companies, such as weather data, digital elevation data, building footprints, and analytical technologies such as machine learning, ICEYE generates flood hazard data within 24 hours of a flood peak.

https://youtu.be/iHUGZwf12ik

Algorithms

There are a growing number of advanced algorithms on the market to automatically detect flood events. Forecasting techniques using AI and machine learning algorithms are effective due to their ability to use data from various sources, and to classify weather events as flood or non-flood. In addition, having access to enormous amounts of high-quality data enables the algorithms to have the potential capability to predict floods before they occur. The advantages of such a solution are many, but among the most important are:

  • much faster generation of flood forecasts and warnings than the traditional method;
  • it uses actual observed data, making no assumptions;
  • the method is self-improving with data and time.

The algorithms can be easily accessed via platforms such as UP42, which already use workflows for flood monitoring.

An example of this algorithm is Flood Submergence Estimation, which uses Sentinel 1 GRD to isolate submergence. It relies on the fact that the block takes two Sentinel-1 GRD(SAR) images (pre-event and post-event) of AOI, and maps the submerged areas. The output of the block is a binary image, where white pixels indicate flooded areas.

Flood submergence estimation. Source: https://up42.com/marketplace/blocks/processing/flood-mapping

Conclusions

Satellite data is a key aid in predicting floods, and enables fast damage assessment and monitoring to detect changes to help understand emerging issues. “Satellite remote sensing is an efficient and cost-effective tool to assess a variety of physical and biological parameters in aquatic ecosystems over small-scaled and large areas and plays a very strategic role in maritime surveillance. Its ability to provide a detailed overview of the area is important in conducting on-going assessments and monitoring the extent of damage,” said Hendrik Bernert, EO Data Analyst at EOMAP.


 

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