Something fundamental has changed in space. After decades of slow growth, the number of spacecraft launched annually has doubled every two years since 2015. And the trend shows no sign of slowing, with tens of thousands of planned spacecraft to be launched over the next few years. This exponential growth is reminiscent of Moore’s Law, the decades-long observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. The consequences of the continuation of Moore’s law and the ever-increasing computing power for lower costs over the past six decades has changed the course of our society, our economy, and our way of life. Could we be witnessing a similar revolution in space?
Gordon Moore wrote his seminal paper, from which Moore’s Law derives its name, when the exponential growth he observed was based on less than six years of data. Similarly, the trend line for this proposed Moore’s Law for space has only been exponentially growing for just over eight years. In that same spirit, it is useful to consider what might happen if this trend continues.
First, it is necessary to point out that nearly all this recent growth in satellites are in low Earth orbit (LEO), which is generally defined as being below 2,000 kilometers in altitude. These are not geostationary satellites. And the great majority of these satellites are commercial, not governmental. SpaceX has already deployed over 5,000 Starlink satellites, and has plans to deploy at least 7,000 more — possibly up to 42,000. China has just launched the first of its proposed 1,3000 satellite Guowang constellation. Amazon just launched the first of its Kuiper satellite constellation, which will have 3,236 satellites. The Chinese G60 constellation recently filed to launch 12,000 satellites. If these plans come to reality, the biennial doubling of satellite launches seems likely to continue as well.
Much of the recent growth in satellite numbers has been due to the rise of SpaceX, which in 2023 averaged a rocket launch about once every four days. The Chinese have also contributed greatly, with a launch rate in 2023 of about once every six days. The fact that SpaceX is the current market leader harkens to the days when Intel dominated the Central Processing Unit (CPU) market. But leaders change — just look at the current market position of Intel — yet Moore’s Law has continued to march on. SpaceX is the current leader in launch today, but will it be a decade from now?
Interestingly, technological progress stemming from Moore’s law for processors has contributed to the growth of Moore’s law for space. The increase in spacecraft results from not only more rocket launches, but also from the growing number of satellites carried per launch. Moore’s law itself has resulted in the miniaturization of spacecraft components, and it is not uncommon nowadays to see launches that carry up to 100 satellites at once into space. But it would be a mistake to attribute the exponential growth rate in either spacecraft or computer processing to purely technical advancements.
Moore’s Law is the result of a combination of technical, market and economic factors. Economic factors drive growing demand and growing expectations. Similarly, the exponential growth in spacecraft is not solely due to improvements in aerospace technology. With increased launch rates come economies of scale and cost reductions. And as launching spacecraft gets cheaper, new business plans become viable. Critical services such as communications and Earth monitoring increasingly are delivered from space, bringing greater capital investment and resultant greater demand for satellites. As companies vie to meet the expectations driven by Moore’s Law, either for integrated circuits or for space, the exponential growth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It remains to be seen how much longer the growth rate of satellites will continue to be proportional to the number of satellites (implying an exponential growth).
Implications of a Moore’s Law for space
If the launch rate of spacecraft does continue to double every two years, the world could see an increase in the severity of the already serious space debris issue. A visualization from my company LeoLabs shows the real time orbits of more than 20,000 objects that the company is currently tracking in low Earth orbit. Collisions in space, each of which creates yet more debris, are already happening, and increasing the number of satellites will only increase the risk of collision. Collisions with space debris are one of the greatest threats to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). When I was a crewmember aboard the ISS 20 years ago, we regularly practiced steps to seal off leaks and evacuate if the station suffered a collision with space debris. During a spacewalk, I even saw a hole in an external handrail caused by a debris strike. Almost all the danger is from numerous small pieces of debris (10 centimeters and below in size). Unfortunately, we do not have an affordable way to remove such small debris from space. Space debris at lower altitudes (under 500 kilometers) naturally reenters the atmosphere on a reasonable timescale (less than a few decades), but higher altitude debris can remain in orbit for centuries. This means we must both avoid creating more debris, and better track what debris is up there to avoid being hit.
The United States Department of Commerce has been tasked with taking over the provisioning of public warnings for potential space debris collision warnings from the Department of Defense, and eventually providing the service of space traffic management, which involves coordination amongst active satellites. Currently, there are nearly 8,000 active satellites in space (almost all in LEO) and about 12,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters being tracked. It would be short-sighted to design a system that is only capable of tracking the number of objects currently in space. Whatever solutions we deploy to prevent collisions in space must be capable of growing exponentially to meet the reality of the increasing rate and scale of launches.
If a Moore’s Law for space continues to hold true, that would also mean that security issues in space would grow exponentially. The rapidly growing space traffic is merely a reflection of the commercial, strategic, and military importance of space. Because so many of the advantages the U.S. military enjoys are dependent upon our space capabilities for communication, reconnaissance, and command and control, we can expect that future military conflicts will involve adversaries attempting to neutralize our satellites. And as the number of satellites skyrockets, so too does the number of satellites with potentially hidden military threats. Every LEO satellite circles the Earth about every 90 minutes. Which satellites are potential threats, and where are they at any given time? The U.S. Space Force has the challenge of monitoring an exponentially growing domain with many places to hide for potential threats, and maintaining the capability to operate in this domain even when under attack. This will require hardening of space systems, and the use of automated and scalable monitoring systems. Again, our space monitoring systems must scale to meet the doubling of satellite launches every two years. And as space technology is no longer the domain of just a few large nations, new space actors such as Iran and North Korea bring increasing chances for mischief.
Another area that will clearly be affected is astronomy from ground based telescopes. For a few hours near dawn and dusk when it is still dark on the ground, LEO satellites can shine brightly in the sky as they are illuminated by the sun. I remember, just 10 years ago, looking up just after sunset, and being lucky to see the occasional satellite go by. But now this is a common occurrence, to the point where this can pollute the images of the sky taken by astronomical observatories. This has already caused enough concern among researchers that SpaceX has designed special coatings for their satellites to reduce their reflected brightness. Given the plans for larger and larger satellite constellations, satellite operators will likely need to make accommodations to reduce the effect on scientific observations of the sky — such as flying their constellations at lower altitudes.
All of these issues will likely lead to greater regulation of space activities. This means verifiable standards for preventing space debris, coordinating orbits to prevent collisions, and even possibly penalties for noncompliance. Regardless of the form these regulations take, enforcement will require greater monitoring of orbital activities to ensure compliance with the rules. As with other activities and changes, these regulations must plan for repeated doublings of space traffic on timescales of just a few years in order to maintain relevance.
How the space industry can prepare
The real question that anybody concerned with operating space satellites, with space security, with space policy, or investing in space technology needs to be considering now is how their plans are affected by Moore’s Law for space. The rapid timescales implied by such a trend necessitate rapid evolution for both technology markets. Think about how outdated a cellphone that is just six years old seems now. Or a website from 10 years ago, or of the capabilities of artificial intelligence from just a few years ago. This is the inevitable result of Moore’s Law. The winners in such a world will take advantage of these rapid development timescales to beat their competition.
While I have argued here that space is growing exponentially, is the number of satellites launched annually even the right metric? In fact, I do think that this metric cannot go on growing forever, particularly since satellites may in fact be built in space at some point, so the launch rate from Earth will be less important. Note too that Moore’s Law has also been redefined over the years, originally predicting the doubling of number of transistors on an integrated circuit and eventually evolving to where it is often quoted today as predicting the doubling of computing power. The staying power of Moore’s Law over decades has been partly due to this redefinition. What is most important, from a strategic perspective, is the concept that the growth rate of some metric of a technology and its market is proportional to the size of that metric.
Just as Moore’s Law has changed our lives over the past 60 years, Moore’s Law in Space can change our lives over the next 60 years. With regards to space, commercial companies are expecting to see enormous growth in services and resultant profits provided through space. In such a future, investors would see exponentially growing opportunities. And engineering talent is likely to follow along in a continuous feedback loop. This could mean further human expansion into space, new scientific discoveries, and new markets. This space economy has the potential to create new jobs and sources of wealth, and to improve our life on Earth.
Edward Lu is a former NASA astronaut and ISS crewmember, and later worked at Google helping build Google Maps. He is also a co-founder of the B612 Foundation and of LeoLabs. He is currently the Executive Director at the Asteroid Institute (part of the B612 Foundation), and the CTO of LeoLabs.