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The Question

(Submitted February 02, 1998)

How many satellites (roughly), both active and obsolete, are currently orbiting the earth?

Roughly how many countries of the world are using the active satellites for any purpose?

Roughly how many countries of the world have the capability ($'s and/or technology) to launch satellites?

I am a college graduate who is trying to settle a recent discussion at dinner party. I need to get the facts.

The Answer

There have been about 4000 launches (some with multiple payloads) and my guess is that several hundred of the satellites involved are still active. Nine individual countries have launched satellites (USA, Russia, Japan, China, France, India, Israel, Australia, UK) as well as international consortia (ESA, the European Space Agency, being the most important of those). A large number of countries have enough money and could easily acquire the technology to launch satellites, but choose for economy and convenience to either have another country launch their payloads or to participate in the space projects of other nations.

Paul Butterworth and David Palmer
for the Ask an Astrophysicist team

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