Objects in Orbit

All Sources By Year

Objects in Orbit is an interactive data visualization of the satellites and space junk orbiting Earth. The visualization uses data obtained from CelesTrak and the UCS Satellite Database.

On October 4th, 1957, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnick 1, into Earth’s orbit and launched the space age. In the years since, approximately 6,500 satellites with purposes ranging from scientific exploration to military surveillance have been launched into Earth’s orbit by 66 various countries and organizations. In addition to revealing a story of  advancements in space exploration, technology, communication, and science, the history of these satellites reveals trends of war, power shifts, and globalization.

The satellite payloads and debris combined account for the 37,891 unclassified man-made objects that have been tracked orbiting Earth over the past 56 years. Of the 14,530 man-made objects currently orbiting Earth, only 950 are operating satellites. These satellites serve commercial, military, government, and civilian users.

“Objects in Orbit” allows the user to visualize the data provided by various tracking agencies. Each object is represented by a small circle, traveling in a circular orbital path. There are four levels of object inclusion: all objects ever launched, all satellites ever launched, all currently orbiting objects, and all currently orbiting operating satellites. All levels of inclusion can be sorted by launch decade or year and can be color coded by their source country. Currently operating satellites can be further sorted by user: military, government, commercial, or civilian. Objects are not drawn to scale and the only somewhat accurate representation of each object’s orbit is the inclination.***

The low-resolution video below cycles through various keyboard interactions. Detailed higher resolution screenshots and source code will be posted soon.

***Four parameters are required to define an elliptical path, with an additional two required to describe a satellite’s position upon that path. In this sketch, the nodes of ascension are randomly assigned upon the initialization of the Processing sketch and all orbits are depicted as circular paths of the same radius. For more information on orbital elements, click here.