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The ever growing flock of space 'birds'

Jonathan Amos | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The space above us is about to get a lot more crowded.

A fascinating report from Euroconsult [220KB PDF], a research and analyst firm specialising in the satellite sector, has released a forecast for how many "birds" it expects to see fly between now and the end of the decade - 1,220 satellites.


That's a lot of spacecraft...and a lot of rockets that will be needed to put all those satellites in orbit.

It works out at an average of 122 satellites per year, which is up significantly on the average annual rate of 77 satellites seen in the 2000s.

It's one more indication I guess of just how important space has become.

In money terms, Euroconsult reckons the manufacturing and launch of those 1,220 satellites will generate revenues of some $194bn worldwide.

Rachel Villain, director for space for Euroconsult, is the editor of the report. She told me:

"About two-thirds of these 1,220 satellites are for governments, and that of course means the commercial sector will represent the other one-third. Most government satellites are launched to low-Earth orbit [a few hundred km above the Earth], while commercial companies launch mainly in geostationary orbit [about 36,000km above the Earth]; and almost exclusively commercial operators will launch communications satellites into geostationary orbit. Government LEO, on the other hand, is quite diversified - for example, Earth observation, telecommunications, science, and also satellites to test the technology for future satellites and new applications or services."

A couple of good examples of demonstrators would be the recent launch by Norway of a small spacecraft that can track ships in its territorial waters; several nations are thinking of doing this. And in the next few weeks, you should also hear a formal announcement of TechDemoSat, a small UK platform, funded by the government, which will prove several new sensors to study the Earth.

In China, the scale of space activity right now is most impressive. The China Great Wall Industry Corporation which has the sole rights to provide satellites for the government says it has 100 contracts for the next five years, meaning it will be launching something like 20 rockets a year.

Satellite chart

A couple of factors contributing to the upward trend are worth noting. One is that some of the big commercial TV satellite operators happen to be in that part of the cycle where they need to replace and upgrade their fleets.

And there are also some big constellations of satellites being rolled out mid-decade. Think about Galileo - Europe's new satellite-navigation system which will put at least 18 satellites in a medium-Earth orbit (MEO - about 23,000km up).

Think also about the satellite phone, messaging and internet operators who want to re-new, supplement or simply establish fleets of spacecraft. Comsat concerns like Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm, and O3B will between them loft 115 spacecraft.

The numbers inevitably highlight the subject of space debris and the need to remove redundant satellites from orbit in a timely fashion to reduce the risks of collision.

And it illustrates, too, the headache rocket companies will face this decade as they try first to ramp up launch rates to accommodate the rush to orbit, and then to rescale their efforts once the backlog has been cleared.


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