Believe it or not, there is a lot of stuff in space. In fact, our atmosphere is filled with more than 11,000 objects that have been launched since the foray into space began.
The Space Race started during the Cold War, and early on the Soviet Union dominated when it came to the amount of devices and objects launched into our atmosphere. But, as Visual Capitalist's Avery Koop details below, a few years ago, the U.S. took back that title with Elon Musk’s SpaceX helping lead the charge.
This visual, using data from Our World in Data, breaks down the amount of objects launched into space by country over time.
What Gets Launched Into Space?
What are the objects being sent into our atmosphere and why are they so important? Here’s a look at just a few:
Space station flight equipment
Probes and landers like the Mars Rover, for example, have helped scientists explore other planets. Satellites provide us with everyday necessities like cell phone service, far reaching television signals, satellite imagery, and GPS.
As of late 2021, there were around 4,852 operational satellites in orbit—2,944 belonging to the United States. Here’s a quick look at what the U.S. uses its satellites for:
Many satellites in orbit, however, are no longer functional. In fact, there is a lot of junk in space—according to NASA, there are over 27,000 pieces of space debris in orbit.
The Space Race, by Country
The venture into outer space began during the Cold War when the USSR launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957. After this, the U.S. and Soviet Union entered a definitive competition between technological advancements and scientific exploration into space—an extension of the battle between political ideologies.
Few countries have come close in matching either the U.S. or Russia so far. Here’s a look at the cumulative number of objects different countries have launched into orbit and beyond.
One important disclaimer here is that not all of these countries have orbital launch capabilities, meaning that although the satellite in space may belong to a certain country, that doesn’t mean that it was launched by said country. For example, the UK’s first launch in 1971 was out of Australia and France’s first launch took place in Algeria in 1965.
In total, around 86 countries have attempted some kind of entry into space. However, as of 2022, only 11 countries have the ability to send objects into space using their own launch vehicles, and only three—the U.S., Russia, and China—have ever launched people into outer space.
The Future of Space
With corporations beginning to take the lead in this new frontier, the landscape of space launches is changing. In 2019 Starlink, a constellation of satellites which provides 36 countries with internet access, was launched. With over 2,200 Starlink satellites in the sky and counting, SpaceX’s ultimate goal is global internet coverage; China is planning a similar venture.
Beyond useful satellites and scientific exploration, other potential space industries are emerging.
As one example, the business of commercial space tourism is no longer a futuristic concept. In late 2021, famous billionaire and founder of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson flew briefly into space on a private flight. Jeff Bezos, having founded Blue Origin, followed shortly after.
Today, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration for passenger space travel. However, if you want to be launched into space, it will cost you around $250,000-$500,000.