You may not know it yet, but the world is in the middle of a new-age space race. In the last five years alone, almost a quarter of all objects ever sent into space were launched.
But unlike at the dawn of the space era, when the superpower nations of the Soviet Union and the United States raced to the Moon, this time it’s billionaires fighting for profits in orbit.
In a matter of hours, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is scheduled to launch another 57 of its satellites into space. The launch is part of a decade-long Starlink mission to build a 12,000-strong mega-constellation to provide low-latency, high-speed internet to remote regions on Earth.
But SpaceX is just one company in the game. There are forecasts that by 2030, as many as 57,000 new satellites could be jostling for an orbital position.
With so many new operators in space and even more satellites, there are fears that entire orbits could be rendered unusable as the risk of satellite collisions increases.
Such dire warnings about the future of our orbits above make it hard to believe that just 60 years ago, humans had no presence in space.
Before that, we’d never seen what Earth looked like from beyond the atmosphere, let alone set foot on the surface of the Moon.
So on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched humankind’s first satellite, it began a chapter in history that revolutionised our understanding of the world we live on.
Russian satellite Sputnik 1 — launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome — was just 58 centimetres in diameter.
Compared to the capabilities of modern satellites it wasn’t much, but the arrival of this human-made object into orbit sent shockwaves around the world.
“The US fully expected that it would be the [first into space] and then suddenly, bam, there’s Sputnik 1,” said space archaeologist and historian Dr Alice Gorman.
“So you have this shock reaction that the Cold War is being lost by this one object. But there’s also tremendous excitement across the world. People just were awed and in wonder that it was possible for humans to enter space.”
What followed was a space race — a technological joust between the Soviet Union and the US that led to huge leaps in the development of satellite technology.
in 1962, the first communications satellite. Telstar was responsible for the first publicly available satellite television when it beamed live across the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA’s Landsat 1 a decade later was the first satellite launched for the sole purpose of monitoring change on Earth.
1990 : NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope, which allowed scientists to see deep into space without the atmosphere clouding the view.
Today, space above is a sea of thousands of active and decommissioned satellites. Since the launch of Sputnik, United Nations data shows there have been more than 9,600 objects launched into space.
That flood of technology has silently changed the way we live on Earth and you may not have even noticed.
Think about those weather images you see on the news or your phone’s weather app. They’re captured and relayed from a satellite that’s about 35,786 kilometres above the earth’s equator in what’s known as the geostationary orbit.
At this distance, satellites can maintain an orbit fixed above a location on Earth, making it perfect for monitoring evolving weather systems.
About 20,000 kilometres away is Medium Earth Orbit. In Australia, when you use your phone for directions, the device is receiving data from a satellite constellation known as the Global Positioning System — a network of more than 24 satellites operated by the US Space Force.
Based on where you are compared to the closest satellites in this constellation, you can pinpoint your location to within centimetres and can even work out your altitude.
Low Earth Orbit:
Thousands of kilometres closer to our surface is Low Earth Orbit.
Fleets of Earth Observation satellites operate here, capturing minute changes on Earth. It’s also home to the International Space Station and Hubble and it’s where companies like SpaceX plan to send their mega-constellations.
Unlike in geostationary orbit, satellites here don’t have to be fixed above the equator. That, combined with the fact that it’s the cheapest orbit to get to, means it is the most congested of all orbits.
More than 70 per cent of all 2,600 active satellites are in LEO, data published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows, and it’s only getting busier.
The traditional model of superpower nations or multinational defence contractors launching huge, costly satellites has rapidly changed over the last decade.
“What we’re seeing now is a shift from a legacy era of satellite manufacturing and development where you had very high-cost satellites that sometimes would cost up to a billion dollars, to an era of nano-tech cubes that cost more like a million dollars in some cases,” said Lisa Parks, author of Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual.
Professor Parks said the change was largely being driven by Silicon Valley investments.
Satellites are cheaper and smaller than they have ever been.
The average weight of currently active satellites launched in 1990 was more than 6,000kg. Today, the average weight is 287kg, UCS data shows.
On top of that, the cost of launching a satellite has also become cheaper.
Between 1970 and 2000, a launch into Low Earth Orbit cost an average of $US18,500 per kg. Launch costs today for the Space X Falcon 9 rocket are around $US2,700 ($3,750) per kg, according to research published by NASA.
For countries like Australia, which can piggyback satellites onto these cheaper launches, it has opened up space like never before.
“The game has changed and if you pick your areas correctly, Australia could actually be leading the game,” said Professor Anna Moore, the director of the Australian National University’s Institute of Space.
“Whether it’s to do with space situational awareness or it’s to do with monitoring the sky, or advanced communications. It can really be world-leading and not just be a bit player.”
But for all its benefits, this flood of technology is also creating one huge problem. The orbits above, in particular Low Earth Orbit, are more cluttered than they have ever been.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has approval to launch more than 12,000 communications satellites into Low Earth Orbit as part of its Starlink mission.
The company has applied for approval for another 30,000 satellites in its mega-constellation.
Just last week, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce giant Amazon received approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch more than 3,000 satellites into LEO, for its own satellite internet network.
Facebook is also reportedly developing its own internet constellation called Athena.
For its part, SpaceX says its Starlink fleet meets or exceeds “all regulatory and industry standards”. It says most of the satellites will use an onboard propulsion system to 'Deorbit' = re-entery burn-up at the end of their lifespans.