Over the last few decades space satellites have become big business. As of 2012 there about 1,000 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them are American. About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military (most of them commercial, the rest government non-military birds.) Since 2001 satellite industry revenues more than doubled, from $83 billion (in 2012 dollars) a year to $189 billion last year. The cost of the satellites is only eight percent of annual satellite revenues. About four percent of the money comes from launching all those satellites and 36 percent of those launches are military. The U.S. has about 35 percent of the launch business, mainly because of the requirement that U.S. classified satellites be launched by American rockets.
The actual number of satellites being launched went down last year; to 81 compared to 90 in 2011. The fewer satellites being launched are more capable, reliable and longer-lasting. About half the satellite launches last year (and two-thirds of the satellites) were for communications, which generates the most income (mostly for TV, followed by data). The U.S. remains the major manufacturer of commercial satellites, with about 60 percent of the market.
The Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit in 1957. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit recently, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012 and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.
In 2013 China launched 20 satellites and by the end of the decade expect to have 200 satellites in orbit (about a fifth of the total and nearly half as many as the United States). At that point China expects to be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. All this momentum has been the result of a quarter century of effort and an enormous spurt of activity in the last two years. In the two decades after 1990 China carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in 18 months.
China's main satellite launcher, the "Long March" rocket, is based on Russian designs, meaning it is simple, cheap and reliable. This has made China a major player in the satellite launching business. China competes on price. The U.S. Space Shuttle was retired because it was the most expensive way get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Space Shuttle cost $25 million a ton. The Russians and Chinese will do it for $3-6 million a ton. But insurance can more than double that cost if there have been a number of recent failures with Russian and Chinese boosters. This keeps more reliable American and European boosters in business. The Long March has a failure rate of about six percent, which was a little higher than twice the rate for the most used Russian launcher. The Space Shuttle failure rate was two percent, as were most Western satellite launchers.
The Chinese Long March can put 9.5 tons in low earth orbit and 5.5 tons in a high one (geostationary transfer orbit). The Chinese took their time to perfect Long March, requiring 28 years to make the first fifty launches, and nine years for the next fifty. So far, Long March has carried out some 164 launches so far.