Visualizing 1016 satellite launches in 11 years

Iulian Gulea
4 min readJun 1, 2017

Visualizations act as a campfire around which we gather to tell stories. ―Al Shalloway

Recently I stumbled upon an interesting dataset — The UCS Satellite Database, which is described as

a listing of active satellites currently in orbit around the Earth

As I’m quite passionate about space exploration and visualizations, I started to think on how to visualize this information in an interesting and engaging way. This is the final result:

Taking a closer look to the dataset (version 1–1–17) we see that it has 1459 entries and 29 features (columns) related to country that operates the satellites, their use (commercial/government/military/civil), data related to their movement and altitude, launch details and a bunch of other characteristics.

First thing, I had to decide what features to select in order for the dashboard to be easy to use and the visualization to be clear. After some thinking and mocking, these features were left:

  1. Date of Launch
  2. Satellite Launch Mass
  3. Users (commercial/government/military/civil)
  4. Launch Site
  5. Country of Operator/Owner

Well, five is better than twenty nine. As these features are different in nature (dates, numbers, geographical), different types of charts should be used.

Technical details aside, one important thing in making a visualization interactive and useful for people to discover insights is the interconnectivity of the charts. That’s why every action you make on one chart affects other charts. For instance, you can select a specific period of time by selecting a region right on the area chart and everything will be adjusted correspondingly:

Satellite launches in 2015

Here we can see that in 2015 USA and China had the most launches (52 and 44). The markers on the map correspond to the geographical position of cosmodromes from where those satellites were launched. The circles above cosmodromes show how many satellites were launched there.

Now, we can see that Cape Canaveral has the biggest number of launches in that period. Let’s select it (either press on the third bar or on the marker on the map) and see what countries have launched their satellites from there:

Satellite launches in 2015 from Cape Canaveral Cosmodrome

USA has the most launches and most of them are commercial satellites, followed by military satellites. During this period, there were launched 21 commercial satellites, 12 military, 8 governmental and 4 civil satellites.

You can go actually very narrow in the filtering process, but let’s visualize another only the military satellites. For this, deselect Civil, Commercial and Government uses above the first chart:

Military satellites launches

The most amount of military satellites goes to USA, with Russia being on the second place with 69 and China on the third place (that was unexpected for me). Note that more than half of all these satellites are pure military satellites, the rest being satellites that are used for mixed military and commercial/government purposes.

One more thing. When you select a country and it has satellites launched in partnership with another country (meaning the country of operator/owner in the dataset is set to more than one country), the partnering countries will be colored in a light orange color:

Partnering countries are shown in light orange color

That’s it for this post. You can go now and explore it by yourself here.

Some personal insights that I found interesting:

  1. Japan has no military satellites and lots of civil satellites.
  2. Cape Canaveral cosmodrome is the most “popular” cosmodrome, with 34 countries that have launched their satellites from.
  3. USA has launched all its military satellites from the two cosmodromes on its territory.
  4. Russia has launched all their satellites from their own two cosmodromes and from Baikonur (details on Russia-Kazahstan cooperation).

Write your own findings in the comments!

Important Notes! I’ve removed any launches before year 2006 and any launch site that has less than 30 satellites launched. Also, in “Country of Operator/Owner” there are two labels that aren’t shown on map: ESA (that stands for European Space Agency, which includes 15 member states) and Multinational, which means that there are more than 3 countries that operate the given satellite, but because there is no data on what exact countries operate them, they are not displayed on the geographical map.

Tech stack: Satellizer is built in ES6 using D3.js v4 and DataMaps as the only dependencies. Here is the github repo of the project.

I’m a web developer with a keen interest in Data Science and Visualization. If you liked Satellizer, go checkout Textury, which is a tool I have built earlier to analyze emotional aspects of any text.

Liked this article? Consider recommending it by pressing on the heart icon and have a fantastic summer!



Iulian Gulea

Web Developer. Entrepreneur. Love technology, psychology, almonds and good music.