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A Visual History of Satellites

The 'extended urbanization' of space. 

Right now, there are about 1,100 satellites whizzing above our heads performing various functions like observation, communication, and spying. There are roughly another 2,600 doing nothing, as they died or were turned off a long time ago.

How did each of these satellites get up there? And what nations are responsible for sending up the bulk of them?

The answers come in the form of this bewitching visualization of satellite launches from 1957 – the year Russia debuted Sputnik 1 – to the present day. (The animation starts at 2:10; be sure to watch in HD.) Launch sites pop up as yellow circles as the years roll by, sending rockets, represented as individual lines, flying into space with one or more satellites aboard.

The lines are color-coded to show where the rockets delivered their payloads. White is for low-earth orbit (the home of observation and spy satellites and space stations), red for medium-earth orbit (navigation and communications satellites), purple for geosynchronous orbit (communications satellites), and blue for high-earth orbit. The latter was the work zone of the now-defunct Vela satellites, designed to monitor for secret nuclear explosions and a remaining source of intrigue due to the mysterious Vela Incident, which conspiracy theorists claim was a joint South African/Israeli nuclear test.

Chris Bennett, a 30-year-old architect from Chicago, made this digital cartography for a course in urban theory at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. "The course was part of the Urban Theory Lab, which is rethinking the nature of urbanization beyond the traditional boundaries of cities," he emails. "Themes of the lab course focused on locations of 'extended urbanization' as a way to understand the broader landscapes that support urban life and are in turn transformed by urbanization. The operationalization of outer space hinges upon specific, highly concentrated terrestrial infrastructures (launch sites), and my semester's research explored those themes."

Bennett points out how different launch sites are sometimes associated with certain orbits – relatively few have done high-earth, for instance (including exactly one in Antarctica) – as well as themes that emerged over the years. "It was interesting to see how different intensities of satellite launches make patterns over the time line, i.e., the intensity of the Soviet Union and then the fall of their launches that coincides with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union," he says.

It's also clear that two countries are responsible for the majority of history's launches: Russia and the United States. Watch the animation to the end for the huge installations in these superpowers responsible for sending up the most rockets, the Russian-managed Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan:

And Cape Canaveral in Florida:

Images courtesy of Chris Bennett

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