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Space Environment: Total Payloads Launched by Country

The following is an excerpt from Appendix A of “Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age,” a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

Read "Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age"


The analysis of the space environment presented in the first chapter of this report utilizes data from publicly available databases, including (Space-Track),1 the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) website,2 and Gunter’s Space Page (GSP).3

Satellite Databases


Space-Track Database

Space-Track is an online catalog that organizes and publishes historical and current space object data collected by the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). The catalog contains over 40,000 individual entries, including both deorbited and in-orbit payloads, rocket bodies, and pieces of debris. This particular study focused only on payload objects.

Space-Track’s catalog includes each space object’s name, international designator, country of origin, and orbital parameters (as well as its launch site, date of decay if applicable, and radar cross section size if available) from Sputnik 1, launched in 1957 and deorbited in 1958, to the most recent object launched in 2017.  This study focused only on objects launched before December 31, 2016.

UCS Satellite Database

The Union of Concerned Scientists organizes and publishes a catalog of satellites currently in orbit, updated quarterly, called the UCS Satellite Database. The most recently updated database is publicly available on their website, and earlier versions can be provided upon request. In addition to the information provided by Space-Track, the UCS database also includes information on each satellite’s purpose and type (Civil, Commercial, or Military).

GSP Chronology of Space Launches

Gunter’s Space Page provides a detailed, narrative description of most payloads’ purpose, manufacturer, and operator. GSP is a privately organized, publicly available database.

Key Definitions

Figure 6: International Designator for the International Space Station (ISS).


International Designator (IntDes)

The international designator, or COSPAR number,4 of a satellite describes a satellite’s position in the history of all space launches. The first four digits denote the year the object was launched, the second three digits denote the order in which that object was launched during the given year, and the final combination of letters differentiate individual satellites within a specific launch system. Objects that begin with the same seven digits were launched concurrently on the same launch system. Refer to Figure 3 for an example of an international designator.

Country of Origin

In Figure 1 of Escalation and Deterrence, the total number of space launches per year are displayed by country. While Space-Track includes the country of origin for each space object in its database, several assumptions were made to create the relevant figure. Space-Track lists all space objects launched by the Soviet Union and Russia as owned and operated by “CIS” or the Commonwealth of Independent States.5 For clarity, the Commonwealth is written as “Soviet Union/Russia” in Figure 1.

Figure 1 also includes the number of space launches by the European Union (EU). This category is a combination of several more specific countries of origin included in Space-Track’s database. It includes all member states at the time of publication.6 Here, the European Union is defined as all current member states, the European Space Agency, the European Space Research Organization, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, the European Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Eutelsat), Société Européenne des Satellites (SES), and also satellites launched by different combinations of EU member states.

Military, Non-Government Military, and Commercial

While the UCS Satellite Database includes the type (Civil, Commercial, or Military) of currently operating satellites, a majority of the space objects analyzed for Figure 2 are no longer in orbit. Thus, this study included a comprehensive categorization of satellite types using the Gunther database.

If a satellite is owned and operated by a company that is more than 50% state-owned, it has been categorized as “Non-Military Government.”

Defining the Second Space Age

In the first chapter of this report, it was noted that the second space age can be principally defined by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which slowed Russia’s launch pace, and the disruptive entrance of other non-U.S., non-Soviet actors into the space domain. Plotting the cumulative rate of space launches by country (United States, Soviet Union/Russia, Others) reveals a quantifiable expression of these statements.

Figure 7: Cumulative Space Launches by Country. The total number of historical launches by year for the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia and all other space-faring nations.

The United States’ launch rate remains approximately constant and linear, with a slight increase in the 1960s corresponding with NASA’s Apollo Program. From 1967 (ten years after the launch of Sputnik 1) to 1990, the Soviet Union’s launch rate was almost precisely linear, with about 90 new launches per year. After the dust settled from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s launch rate sank to fewer than 17 launches per year from 1995 to 2016. Other actors, primarily Japan, China, and member states of the European Union, experienced a great increase in space launches following 1991. During the first space age, other countries successfully launched approximately 30 payloads per year. Afterwards, the launch rate more closely resembled an exponential increase with a 5.5% growth factor.

Further Analysis

Only a fraction of the available data in Space-Track’s online catalog was utilized for this study. Further analysis can be done to quantify certain characteristics of the first and second space age. Other categories of interest could include orbital regimes (which could be calculated from the orbital parameters provided with each line element of the catalog), launch sites, object size, and object lifespan.

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