UP IN THE ORBIT

I have been diving deeper into the satellite industry recently due to a couple of opportunities operating in adjacent spaces. So this is a short summary of the key insights into the satellite market, starting off with an overview of the satellite applications, types of orbits and going into the increase in satellites launched and most excitingly new companies that are looking up to the orbit.

First, check how many satellites (+debris + rocket parts) there are out there in the several orbits http://stuffin.space (Safari/Firefox). It’s an amazing 3D map updated daily of stuff in space, created by James Yoder.

APPLICATIONS

As of March 9 there are 18,019 satellites orbiting the Earth (source: N2YO. For the further analysis of the satellite market I have used UCSUSA database, they have gathered the data about each satellite that was orbiting earth on 2016 July 1. Therefore the number of satellites currently in orbit and number covered in the database/below differs. Btw, here is an interactive infographic on satellites snapshot on December 2015 based on the UCSUSA dataset by Quartz).

Satellites are launched primarily for the following applications:

  • Earth Observation satellites
  • Space Observation
  • Communication satellites
  • Navigation and Positioning satellites
  • Scientific: Space Science and Earth Science
  • Technology Development and Demonstration

If we would try to get a snapshot of the split in-between the different satellite applications, it would look the following:

Data Source: UCSUSA.org
  • Global Positioning includes Navigation, Global and Regional Positioning
    **Others includes Earth Science, Space Science, Space Observation and Technology Demonstration.

Communication satellites form the largest group, followed by the Earth Observation.

ORBITS

Satellites are being launched into different orbits and there are several ways to categorize them — by its shape, by its inclination, by its position in relation to Earth’s rotation and by the distance from the center of the Earth. The last categorization, which is sometimes referred to the Orbit Class, I found to be the most relevant when talking about satellites, due to its impact on the cost of satellite and its’ launch (simply said the further away from the earth the satellite — the larger = more expensive it is and the higher are the costs of launching it). The pricing published by SpaceX indicates that launching to Lower-Earth Orbit can be up to 2.7x cheaper per kg than launching an item to Geo-Stationary Orbit.

The orbit classes are the following and reflected in the graph below:

  • Lower Earth Orbit
  • Medium Earth Orbit
  • Geostationary Orbit
  • Elliptic
Data Source: UCSUSA.org, point in time: 2016 July.

Lower Earth Orbit is closest to the Earth surface and ranges between 160km up to 2,000km altitude. Medium Earth Orbit sits in-between Lower Earth and Geostationary, where Geostationary is in the altitude of 35,786km (Geostationary orbit also already implies 0 degree inclination in comparison to the equator and the ability to match the rotation of the Earth, so that the satellite appears to be in a fixed spot in the sky for the observer from Earth). Elliptic Orbit is at different altitudes due to its position in relation to Earth, crossing through both Lower Earth and Geostationary orbits.

Different orbits also impact the satellites ability to perform the application it has been launched for. Medium-Earth orbit is mostly used for Global Positioning System, Lower Earth for both Communications and Earth Observation, Geostationary Orbit is largely equipped with Communication satellites and in the Elliptical Orbit almost half of the satellites are for Space Science, while the rest is split among Communications, Earth Observation and Technology Development. The graph below depicts the number of satellites in a particular orbit and with a particular application as on July 2016:

Data Source: UCSUSA.org, point in time: 2016 July.

LAUNCHES & NEW SPACE COMPANIES

There have been an increasing number of satellites launched year over year with 175 satellites launched in 2015 and 75 satellites in first half of 2016. The graph below depicts the launches of the satellites that are currently still orbiting Earth. As satellites decay over time and burn up, the graph is not a representation of the total number satellites ever launched.

Data Source: UCSUSA.org

The amount of satellites is affected by the amount of launches that are performed by rocket launching companies, therefore fluctuations might not always be due to lack of satellites to be launched, but rather by the limited load space available for launching.

There is an increasing amount of so called New Space companies that are participating in the satellite industry and lining up their satellites for launch. New Space is ambiguous to define, but the aim is to cover the newly established private spaceflight companies, including the ones with satellite applications.

One example is Planet Labs, founded in 2010, but already with 150 satellites in orbit — and had a massive launch of 88 satellites in the beginning of 2017. Also, a considerable amount of New Space companies are working on the satellites to launch, but have not yet send a vehicle to orbit.

Most of these New Space companies are working on smaller type of satellites, categorized as Nano Satellite (<10 kg), Micro Satellite (10 kg to 100 kg) or Mini Satellites (100 kg to 500 kg).

Below I tried to map the New Space companies that are tackling the satellite industry. They are arranged by the applications discussed above: Communication, Earth Observation, Earth Science&Space Science. While seeing a range of companies that are serving particular hardware for satellites to the companies that aim to put them in orbit, I added a category for these companies as well. And the last category covers companies that focus on software solutions, for example analytics for the earth observation data or ground control systems or any other. This category is interesting in particular due to the range of applications and higher capital efficiency.

Some of the companies mentioned in one category can naturally fall in a couple of others, but I have tried to assign them to their primary/one focus area only.

This was my best attempt to categorize the companies and find as many as I can. I would gladly expand the graph with companies that I have missed or mis-categorized or create a new category — please do send me hints to milda@earlybird.com!

Sources: http://space.stackexchange.com/qu; http://www.sia.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Mktg15-SSIR-2015-FINAL-Compressed.pdf; http://www.n2yo.com/browse/?y=2017&m=02; http://www.ilslaunch.com/node/33; http://www.ucsusa.org;