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The World‘s Largest Satellite Companies And Their Vital Networks

Satellites have revolutionized modern life by enabling global communications, navigation, weather tracking and endless remote sensing applications from space. The satellite operators that design, manufacture and maintain these complex space networks form a $270 billion industry projected to grow 9% annually.

This guide will break down the world‘s 12 largest satellite companies based on 2021 revenue data. We will explore their unique capabilities and why they are leaders in this high-tech sector that connects the planet.

How Satellites Function: A Condensed Explanation

Before analyzing the major industry players, let‘s briefly review how satellites are able to orbit and communicate. Satellites are specialized, miniaturized machines packed with advanced technology and launched skyward on rockets. Based on their height above Earth, satellites fall into 3 categories:

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – Up to 1,200 miles high; requires hundreds/thousands to cover Earth but enables fast low-latency data transmissions
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) – Between LEO and GEO at ~8,000 miles up; 10-20 global satellites
Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) – 22,000 miles above the equator; 3 satellites provide full global coverage but higher latency

Satellites use solar arrays and batteries for electricity. Thrusters adjusting orientation and trajectory burn fuel to keep satellites on the proper path for up to 15 years or longer before deorbiting.

Signals are beamed from ground stations worldwide up to satellites equipped with receivers and transmitters to relay data including telephone, television, radio, internet and more across regions. Special cameras, radiometers and sensors allow observing Earth‘s land, oceans and atmosphere in incredible detail.

Now let‘s explore the extensive networks and advanced satellites created by the world‘s top space technology companies.

Blanketing the Planet With Just a Handful of Satellites

Given their wide angles of visibility, global communication remarkably only requires 3 satellites in GEO, 10-20 in MEO or a few hundred lower satellites if faster networking is paramount. Early operators began with a dozen or fewer satellites interconnected by ground relays while newer proposed mega-constellations like SpaceX‘s Starlink comprise thousands of individual spacecraft – envisioning an expansive mesh network surrounding Earth for maximum capacity and redundancy.

For perspective, there are currently over 6,000 satellites of all varieties orbiting Earth as of 2022, along with tens of thousands of debris objects tracked and catalogued by the Department of Defense. Now let‘s explore the major corporations driving cutting-edge developments in this vibrant, exponentially growing industry.

#12 China Satellite Communications – $380 Million 2021 Revenue

Founded in 2001 and based in Beijing, China Satellite Communications operates a network of over 20 in-orbit satellites including 16 GEO craft providing coverage across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. They lease satellite capacity to Chinese government agencies and state-owned media outlets while serving other businesses in China and neighboring countries. The SOE has 550+ employees working to expand satellite connectivity across regions home to over 3 billion potential customers.

#11 The SpaceX Starlink LEO Broadband Constellation – $500 Million 2021 Revenue

The private California rocket company SpaceX has disrupted the launch sector with reusable Falcon 9 rockets. Founder Elon Musk has even bigger plans to transform internet access through space. Currently in beta with over 3,000 low Earth orbit spacecraft launched thus far, the ambitious Starlink constellation intends to provide high bandwidth satellite internet rivaling fiber optic speeds to remote regions by the mid-2020s leveraging thousands more advanced satellites.

#10 Korea Aerospace Research Institute – $583 Million 2021 Revenue

KARI was established in 1989 with the goal to develop indigenous space technology and boost South Korea‘s aerospace sector. Headquartered in Daejeon, KARI has designed, built and launched around 50 satellites to date, primarily for R&D, Earth observation and demonstrating new space science capabilities. KARI continues working to grow satellite communications across East Asia and launch its own regional navigation satellite system this decade to rival GPS.

#9 Iridium Communications – $615 Million 2021 Revenue

This innovative operator based in Virginia maintains a network of 66 LEO satellites plus spares orbiting pole-to-pole to enable real-time voice and data connectivity everywhere on Earth. With an eye to the future, Iridium‘s satellites carry cutting-edge next-gen payloads and are uniquely connected via inter-satellite crosslinks versus strictly relying on ground stations for mid-air data handoffs enabling low-latency communication. The specialized satellites provide critical lifelines to remote assets like ships, airplanes, heavy machinery and more while only requiring compact, affordable antennae and terminals.

#8 Kratos Defense & Security Solutions – $830 Million 2021 Revenue

While not itself an operator, California engineering firm Kratos plays a crucial role behind the scenes by manufacturing vital hardware, software, radio frequency products and microelectronics comprising satellite ground systems. Their ubiquitous technology enables communication with, control of and data processing from constellations in space for defense, intelligence and commercial clients. Kratos also produces uncrewed aerial target drones advancing leading-edge weapons technologies.

#7 China Spacesat Co.Ltd. – $1.01 Billion 2021 Revenue

Spacesat fills a critical role assembling and launching satellites to serve China‘s state priorities in communications, navigation, meteorology and research. Based in Beijing with factories in Shanghai and Xi‘an, the company has grown tremendously since its 2013 founding. Having deployed over 150 smaller satellites thus far including remote sensing craft studying agriculture and natural resources, Spacesat aims to continue expanding access and services for China‘s vast population through space technology.

#6 Boeing Satellite Systems – $1.23 Billion 2021 Revenue

The American aerospace giant Boeing draws on 100+ years of aviation experience in building sophisticated satellite platforms engineered to withstand the harsh space environment. Their flagship 702X series is the world‘s most popular large geostationary satellite due to excellent capacity, coverage and configurability options for operators worldwide. Weighing up to 13,000 lbs and generating 16 kW of electricity via advanced solar arrays, the 702 provides digital payloads for video distribution, private data networks, mobile connectivity and sensitive defense communications.

#5 Inmarsat – $1.35 Billion 2021 Revenue

Originally formed in 1979 to enable ship-to-shore communication, Inmarsat has grown into the quintessential satellite telecommunications company. From London headquarters, they maintain 14 GEO satellites providing reliable global voice and high-speed IP data services primarily to the maritime sector and airlines but also enterprises and governments requiring seamless coverage when outside terrestrial networks. Demand for inflight wifi and streaming video alone has tripled bandwidth utilization prompting Inmarsat‘s seven next-gen spacecraft launch soon, cementing their long-term commitment to innovation.

#4 SES – $2.02 Billion 2021 Revenue

This pioneering Luxembourg-headquartered firm operates over 70 satellites – primarily in GEO orbit – that deliver video and data services worldwide. SES provides the infrastructure enabling over 8400 television channels to be distributed to hundreds of millions of homes globally. Their intelligent medium Earth orbit O3b constellation beams high-throughput, low-latency connectivity to telcos, cloud computing customers and mobile operators requiring fiber-like performance, notably in developing areas. SES has helped enable globalization through satellites for over 35 years and continues adding advanced new systems in space and on the ground.

#3 Safran – $18.35 Billion 2021 Revenue

While not exclusively dedicated to space systems, this major French aerospace conglomerate produces critical optical, radar and laser instrumentation integrated into satellites, rockets and ground stations through their Safran Electronics & Defense subdivision. Safran maintains 250+ satellite tracking stations in 46 countries nourished by this high-tech equipment. Their Galileo Navigation and position receiver modules utilize atomic clocks and advanced optics to enable satellite guidance and communications aiding aviation, maritime, agriculture and the military.

#2 Mitsubishi Electric – $37.9 Billion 2021 Revenue

Based in Tokyo, Mitsubishi draws on 50+ years of expertise having manufactured over 600 satellites since 1970. Their specialty is designing and integrating complex space systems working closely with domestic partners like MHI. Mitsubishi builds scientific Earth observation and weather satellites along with smaller R&D craft. Commercial GEO comsats and transponders provide signals essential to broadcasting and telecoms. Due to Japan‘s expertise in robotics and miniaturization, Mitsubishi‘s lightweight satellites help lead global space infrastructure modernization, increasingly powered by made-in-Japan electric propulsion for accuracy and sustainability.

#1 Maxar Technologies – $1.8 Billion Space Infrastructure Revenue in 2021

Founded in 1969 as a Canadian pioneer in satellites and robotics, Maxar has consolidated innovative US leaders including spacecraft titans SSL and DigitalGlobe via acquisitions into the only pureplay space infrastructure mega-firm listed publicly on the NYSE. The vertically integrated company manufactures high-performance satellites and components supporting defense, intelligence and scientific missions. Commercial and government clients rely on Maxar‘s constellation to produce sub-meter resolution Earth images indispensable for national security and urban planning. Recent wins expanding their potential beyond the 34 GEO assets already in orbit include NASA‘s cutting-edge Psyche asteroid observer and satellite servicing drone. Financial analysts peg Maxar‘s total accessible market at $115 billion between government space budgets increasing annually near 5% and ongoing efficiency gains converting from legacy ground infrastructure to flexible, secure networks in orbit. Constellation refresh ensures Maxar remains ahead as both partner and prime moving the industry toward hybrid space/ground connectivity.

The over $270 billion satellite communications and observation sector continues growing rapidly as launch costs decline and new commercial networks take shape. Despite nascent mega-constellations like SpaceX Starlink aiming to disrupt consumer broadband beginning this decade with thousands of new satellites, conventional players driving most industry revenue and cash flows currently remain large geosynchronous telecom operators and government contractors.

As satellite technology proliferates promising expanded access and innovation touching everyday life, we must continue modeling sustainability whether via efficient new electric propulsion systems or designing reliability from the ground up to minimize space debris. Fortunately, the world‘s leading space infrastructure companies invest heavily in extending satellite utility and replacement measured in decades rather than years – delivering substantial value relative to costs and environmental impacts that are comparatively miniscule stacked against industries like air travel when considering the sheer breadth of essential capabilities enabled, from blizzard forecasting to mapping climate change.

Through intricate cooperation and visionary leadership across public and private spheres, satellite architects enable the broader space economy valued at over $424 billion currently, but with the potential to boundlessly transform human knowledge and commerce through unprecedented vantages only orbit provides.