During much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union and the United States competed during the Cold War’s Space Race to best one another in spaceflight and rocket technology. Today, another race is taking place, this time commercially, as publicly traded and private companies send more satellites into low Earth orbit. (This is the country with the most military satellites.)
While commercial communications satellites have been launched into orbit since the early 1960s, the industry of orbital communications services really began to take off in the 1990s.
Now several large companies operate constellations of satellites that can deliver data globally, including satellite-based internet, GPS, phone service that works anywhere, and Earth observations useful for weather tracking, mining, forestry, and agriculture.
To determine the companies with the most satellites, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization. Companies are ranked by the number of operational satellites in orbit as of Jan. 1, 2022 that are at least partially being used for commercial purposes.
One example of the services these companies provide, or aim to provide, is Planet Labs’s plan. The San Francisco-based company’s eventual goal is to provide daily, high-resolution images of any area on the planet’s surface. Planet Labs operated 188 satellites as of the start of 2022, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The expense and expertise required to launch sophisticated communications satellites means the club of the biggest satellite operator (based on the number of working satellites in orbit) is small and insular.
London-based OneWeb, the second largest satellite company based on the number of satellites, works with SpaceX to deliver its satellites in orbit even though SpaceX’s Starlink is OneWeb’s primary competitor for broadband satellite internet. Last year, SpaceX, which owns the largest constellation of satellites, acquired Swarm Technologies, a provider of Internet of Things satellite-based communications, as a wholly owned subsidiary. (These are Elon Musk’s companies.)
In 2016, Luxembourg-based SES exercised a call to buy O3b Networks, which works to provide broadband internet to underdeveloped parts of the world, in a $730 million deal. O3b Networks later became O3b mPOWER, one of the services offered by SES. Earlier this year, San Francisco-based Spire Global began using satellite antennas made by Ontario-based Kepler Communications.
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