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By Meteorologist Randy Mann
Article published on May 17, 2021

In May 2021, the world watched anxiously as China’s Long March 5B rocket was tumbling toward Earth. It finally splashed down in the Indian Ocean, but scientists were uncertain where the rocket would end up.

Our world has become very dependent on satellites. Weather forecasting, television network programs, GPS, cell phone communications, aircrafts and other sophisticated devices are all connected to satellites.

As of 2020, there were nearly 6,000 satellites orbiting our planet and there are approximately 2,800 of them that are functioning. Many of the nonfunctioning satellites are considered to be space “junk” that just circle the Earth. Eventually, all satellites that are launched in space will wear out over time. When their time is up, engineers will use its remaining fuel to slow it down so it can fall out of its orbit and mostly burn up in our atmosphere. Sometimes, engineers can direct them to fall into the ocean. Some larger satellites will often be sent into a higher orbit, or a “graveyard orbit,” which is about 200 miles farther away from Earth. Some of the old weather satellites can be found in that region.

We’ve all seen numerous headlines as more satellites are being approved for launch by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It’s estimated by 2030, there may close to 100,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Many of the ones planned for launch are expected to provide better worldwide communication and Internet services.

Despite the increasing number of objects in space, we can’t help but wonder if the chances become much higher for collisions in space. There was one occasion back in 2009 where two communication satellites accidentally collided at a speed of 26,000 miles per hour. They were two Russian satellites and it occurred above Siberia.

The first successful satellite launched was in October of 1957. It’s was the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1. According to Wikipedia, there was a mathematical study of an artificial satellite by Isaac Newton back in 1687. There was also a short story about a satellite launch by Edward Everett Hale called the “The Brick Moon” written in 1869. On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 was the first successfully launched satellite by the United States. We have certainly come a long way in the last 63 years.

Thanks to the new satellite technology, forecasting severe storms and hurricanes has improved dramatically as we can track their movement and intensity in real time. According to NASA, the improved sensors on the newer satellites have helped forecasters to better predict where these massive storms are heading. They are also effective at providing real-time warning of solar disturbances and help monitor dust storms, volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

A new series of weather satellites are expected to be launched either late this year or in 2022. Their purpose is to extended the current system until 2037. According to NOAA, this new system of satellites will provide more severe weather lead time, earlier warning of lightning ground strikes, better detection for floods, improved air quality warnings, better detection of fog and improved communication and navigation systems in case there are electrical disruptions or blackouts.