Top 2020 small satellite launch stats: Who deploys smallsats and why?

3rd Jun 2021
Iridium Satellite

In the past decade, technological advancement made it possible to reduce the size of many devices, which also affected the small satellite launch industry. Miniaturisation has affected literally all industries, including space. Smallsats are rapidly replacing large and heavy satellites because their low price and high quality allow increasing the number of satellites in orbits. Besides, small satellite launch vehicles that deploy them are also more affordable.

Smallsats are satellites that weigh under 600 kg. They include:

  • minisatellites (100-600 kg),
  • microsatellites (10-100 kg),
  • nanosatellites (1-10 kg),
  • picosatellites (0.1-1 kg),
  • CubeSats, consisting of 1-12 units with a weight of 0.1-1 kg,
  • femto satellites (under 0.1 kg)

From 2012 to 2019, the smallsats market grew 11 times compared to other industries and is projected to double further over the next five years. The tendency for a satellite launch schedule is clear. If slightly over 1,700 smallsats were launched in seven years, only in 2020 the number of satellites launched exceeded 1,000. Besides, the largest share of those satellites were commercial payloads. So, how many satellites have been launched, and who launched them?

small satellite trends 2012 -2019

Image credit: Bryce Space and Technology

Small satellite launch leaders

According to statistics at https://space.skyrocket.de/, the USA, China and Russia remain the launch leaders as usual. In 2020, these countries accounted for 36, 39, and 16 launches, respectively. Rocket launch leaders include SpaceX Falcon 9 (24 launches), the Chinese Long March (Chángzhēng) series (34), and the Russian R-7 Soyuz rockets – 14 launches. Two more notable launchers are Rocket Lab Electron (7 launches) and Arianespace Vega. The latter carried out only two launches, and the second one failed; the first one, however, put a record number of smallsats into orbit – 65.

satellite launches by country and by vehicle

Communication satellites

Communication satellites account for the largest number of satellites launched. So, how many satellites have been launched? SpaceX alone deployed 833 spacecraft (250 kg each) in 14 launches for its Starlink global Internet network. It is followed by OneWeb with 104 satellites (weighing 150 kg) for its own internet network. More OneWeb satellites were planned, but the company’s bankruptcy interfered with its satellite launch schedule, which has now been resolved as the UK government and another investor stepped in with a rescue package.

The third place is taken by the Swarm Technology Space BEE communication picosatellites, built to the 0.25U CubeSat form factor. In 2020, 2 batches of 12 and 24 satellites were launched on ESA Arianespace Vega and RocketLab Electron small satellite launch vehicles. In total, the constellation includes 150 satellites and is currently fully deployed.

Earth Observing satellites

The second largest group is Earth Observing satellites. How many satellites have been launched?

Here, the leadership belongs to Planet Labs Flock 3U CubeSats, which were launched in batches of 26 (Vega small satellite launcher), 5 and 9 devices (RocketLab Electron small satellite launcher). Unfortunately, the first Electron launch failed, and the satellites were lost.

38-kg Argentine Earth observation satellites ÑuSat, developed and operated by Satellogic SA, hold second place. Only 13 of them were deployed in three launches.

The third place among EOS belongs to a cluster of Chinese satellites Jilin 1 weighing 95 kg. In 2020, 9 of them were launched into orbit on the Long March 11 small satellite launcher. Another satellite was lost in the unsuccessful launch of another Chinese rocket, Kuaizhou 11, in July.

Meteorological satellites

And the third largest group of launched spacecraft is meteorological satellites. Here, CubeSats 3U Lemur 2, created by Spire Global, take the lead. In 2020, a total of 18 satellites were deployed in four launches, using Antares, Vega, PSLV, and Soyuz 2.1 small satellite launch vehicles.

The statistics for the first quarter of 2021 show that the distribution of leaders and the satellite launch schedule remain unchanged. At the same time, the total small satellite launch number keeps growing as predicted.

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