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Slingshot Aerospace Report Highlights Record Insurance Market Losses in 2023

By Abbey Weltman | May 1, 2024

      Via Satellite archive photo

      A new report from Slingshot Aerospace reveals record-high insurance losses in 2023, and threats to space sustainability as more satellites are launched every year. Slingshot pulled back the curtain on satellite lifecycles in 2023 in its inaugural State of Satellite Deployments & Orbital Operations report, released on April 30.

      The report was informed by the Slingshot AI data platform, which combines data from the Slingshot Global Sensor Network, the Slingshot Seradata satellite and launch database, satellite owner-operators, and other space data providers to create a dynamic view of space activities.

      Losses in the Insurance Market 

      The space insurance market took a major hit in 2023 with record losses of $995 million in total paid out across the space industry. According to the report, space insurers collected approximately $557 million in premiums, but paid out $995 million in insurance claims, resulting in a record-breaking net loss of $438 million. The Slingshot Seradata team collects information on the space insurance market

      The most significant claim was the $445 million claim for ViaSsat-3 Americas satellite, followed by Inmarsat’s $348 million claim when its 6-F2 communications satellite experienced a battery failure. These claims went to the same company, as Inmarsat is now part of Viasat, post-acquisition.

      To deal with this impact, insurers are increasing premium rates. At the beginning of 2023, the premium for a typical Geostationary (GEO) satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket would have a rate of less than 6% of the insured value for launch plus one year. Now, insuring that same satellite will cost around 10%. 

      General Manager of Seradata, Melissa Quinn, told Via Satellite this poses a problem because accessing insurance will become increasingly more expensive. As more satellites are launched regulators will continue to require spacecraft to have insurance before they’re launched. It will be more expensive for small satellite manufacturers to get their spacecraft into space. 

      Some space insurers can not afford to withstand these price increases. Quin said, “We have already seen some of our insurance customers leave the market completely. So we’re seeing a bit of a decrease in that side of the industry already in the first quarter of this year.” 

      Quinn said there could be several impacts from a rise in insurance causes. There could be changes in the types of satellites being launched, difficulty in licensing, spikes in renewals due to increased congestion in space, and satellite manufacturers opting to not get insured at all.

      According to the report, commercial GEO satellites are typically insured, but Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are less likely to be insured. Slingshot reports that satellites in constellations are typically not insured, as the quantity of satellites functions as its own insurance.

      Slingshot also tracks the type of spacecraft anomalies that lead to insurance claims and reports there is no long-term trend in one type of anomaly. However, atenna/beam deployment/quality control anomalies are more likely to cause larger losses. 

      The Impact of SpaceX

      In 2023, there was a 19.9% increase in launches and a 14.6% increase in satellites deployed from 2022. 2023 set a record for global launches with 223 orbital launches. This growth is significantly due in part to the successes of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the Starlink constellation. Starlink accounted for 79% of all deployed spacecraft in 2023.

      Starlink has by far the most spacecraft deployed in a constellation. It leads the top 20 largest constellations by more than 5,000 satellites. Starlink satellites make up 72% of all of the satellites in the top 20 constellations. 

      According to the report, the next-largest constellations are OneWeb, with 638 satellites, and Planet, with 542 satellites.

      Quinn said Starlink’s vast impact on the industry cannot be ignored. Quinn said, “Every graph in this report pretty much shows that — the increase of  commercial over military and civil, to the increase of comm satellites, to the increase of spacecraft in LEO. Every one of those major stories tells the story of Starlink.”

      Threats to Space Sustainability 

      The Slingshot report also analyzed end-of-life plans for when satellites reach the end of their missions. 219 total satellites became inactive in 2023 through end-of-life satellite disposal. 

      There is a consistent upward trajectory in the annual number of spacecraft added to a graveyard orbit, which is where GEO satellites are sustainably retired. At the end of 2023, there were a total of 508 satellites in graveyard orbit with a record high of 25 satellites added during the year. The trend is expected to continue as spacecraft are launched with no alternative retirement plans.

      In 2023, 187 LEO satellites, 29 GEO satellites, and three Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites were retired. Although some LEO satellites have sustainable end-of-life plans, not all do. On its own, a LEO satellite can take years to naturally decay which adds to the congestion problem in LEO.

      Slingshot reports that at the end of 2023, there were 9,241 active satellites in orbit, and 3,356 inactive satellites — including 1,990 inactive satellites in LEO. 

      “There’s huge amounts of congestion and a huge decrease in the distance between them. I think it’s going to require technology, policy, even environmental monitoring, and sustainability such as satellites burning up in the atmosphere because that has an impact as well. So I think we need a whole kind of look at this problem to come together collectively across all different parts of the industry to help understand how we’re going to avoid major collisions,” Quinn said. 

      One development over the past few years is an increase in the percentage of satellites launched with propulsion or de-orbit capability to sustainably manage end of life. In 2023, about 89% of satellites launched were equipped with these capabilities, up from about 70% five years ago in 2019. Slingshot reported this is a trend away from cubesats toward “constellations of larger, better equipped, and more valuable satellites.”  

      Quinn said that Slingshot hopes public awareness from this report will help the community see these trends and work together to mitigate collisions and promote sustainability in space. She said the report can tell the full story of the lifecycle of a satellite and spread important information about how we are using space. 

      “I think it’s important that we get some of this information out because then we can start making more responsible decisions about how we’re using space [when] you actually see the real data and see the trends of what’s going on,” she said Only then can you start to spur the industry to maybe take some action to change ways and behavior.”