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There are almost 10,000 satellites orbiting Earth—and that’s creating a booming space economy

A constellation of companies designed to launch and service the massive amount of new satellites in space are at the core of a booming space sector.

There are almost 10,000 satellites orbiting Earth—and that’s creating a booming space economy
[Source photo: FC]


By the numbers, the space industry is, effectively, the satellite industry. Around $17.9 billion was invested in the global space economy in 2023, according to the most recent quarterly report from Space Capital, an early-stage venture firm focused on the space economy. “Launch gets a lot of attention,” says Justus Kilian, a managing partner.

But launch service companies got just about 9% of equity investments over the last decade. Cool, sci-fi stuff—like building space stations, providing “orbital services,” manufacturing in space, and mining asteroids—gets even less funding, accounting for only about 1% of capital raised. “Everything else is going into the satellite ecosystem,” Kilian says. That includes satellites in orbit, ground services that connect them, and end applications that use the data they collect, serving industries ranging from agriculture to insurance to logistics. “That’s what pays for the industry,” says Kilian.

According to data from Slingshot Aerospace, there are currently more than 9,600 satellites orbiting Earth, with more than 2,200 launched last year alone. The surge in space traffic has created a booming market for companies that focus on situational awareness and traffic management—monitoring exactly where satellites are and helping them avoid collisions.

These include Slingshot, which operates a worldwide array of optical sensors to track and analyze space traffic for commercial and government customers; Orbion Space Technology, whose small plasma thruster engines help satellites adjust their orbits and perform evasive maneuvers; and Michigan-based Kall Morris Inc., which is testing software and a gecko-inspired grappling tool for its space-trash collection service.

There are three main use cases for satellite applications—the biggest is communications, where the focus has shifted from providing home satellite TV to delivering broadband internet streaming to any device anywhere on Earth. While SpaceX’s Starlink constellation dominates the market for now, Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to build a network of more than 3,200 satellites (half of which must be put in orbit by mid-2026 to satisfy FCC license requirements), and China is building two low-Earth-orbit broadband constellations, called G60 Starlink and Guowang, which would put another 25,000 satellites in space.

But smaller players aim to compete by offering  innovative alternatives—such as small, geostationary satellites from Astranis that promise reliable, affordable coverage for areas that Starlink doesn’t reach. And companies that provide satellite imagery and positioning data (GPS, for example) can typically get by with smaller constellations, or even just a few satellites focused on a particular task. In 2023, for example, Orbital Sidekick launched the first three satellites in a planned six-satellite constellation that uses “hyperspectral” imaging technology to monitor pipelines and refineries for leaks and spills.

When it comes to space exploration, governments and private companies, often working hand in hand, continue to take big swings—succeeding more than they fail and gaining invaluable insights. In September, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission completed a 4.4 billion-mile round-trip mission to the asteroid Bennu, returning samples to Earth, with precision guidance from the flight dynamics team at KinetX.

The month before, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-3 mission soft-landed near the moon’s south pole, a first—and did so on a budget of just $74 million. While the Indian lander and a companion “rover” vehicle failed to reawake after shutting down for the two-week “lunar night,” the mission, which collected data for 11 days, was considered a success. “These are all major technical steps forward,” says Kilian. “We’re not working for perfection in a single step, but to incrementally improve with every step. And there are more companies that are able to achieve hard things in space.”


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