Satellite Communications

(Adapted From Wikipedia)

Iridium NEXT satellite

A satellite is an object that has been intentionally placed into orbit. These objects are called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth’s Moon.

On 4 October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Since then, about 8,900 satellites from more than 40 countries have been launched. According to a 2018 estimate, some 5,000 remain in orbit. Of those, about 1,900 were operational, while the rest have exceeded their useful lives and become space debris. Approximately 63% of operational satellites are in low Earth orbit, 6% are in medium-Earth orbit (at 20,000 km), 29% are in geostationary orbit (at 36,000 km) and the remaining 2% are in various elliptical orbits. A few large space stations, including the International Space Station, have been launched in parts and assembled in orbit. Over a dozen space probes have been placed into orbit around other bodies and become artificial satellites of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a few asteroids, a comet and the Sun.


Satellites are used for many purposes. Among several other applications, they can be used to make star maps and maps of planetary surfaces, and also take pictures of planets they are launched into. Common types include military and civilian Earth observation satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, weather satellites, and space telescopes. Space stations and human spacecraft in orbit are also satellites.

Satellites can operate by themselves or as part of a larger system, ie satellite constellations.

Satellite orbits vary greatly, depending on the purpose of the satellite, and are classified in a number of ways. Well-known (overlapping) classes include low Earth orbit, polar orbit, and geostationary orbit.

A launch vehicle is a rocket that places a satellite into orbit. Usually, it lifts off from a launch pad on land. Some are launched at sea from a submarine or a mobile maritime platform, or aboard a plane.

Satellites are usually semi-independent computer-controlled systems. Satellite subsystems attend many tasks, such as power generation, thermal control, telemetry, attitude control, scientific instrumentation, communication, etc. Early satellites were constructed to unique designs. With advancements in technology, multiple satellites began to be built on single model platforms called satellite buses. The first standardized satellite bus design was the HS-333 geosynchronous (GEO) communication satellite launched in 1972.

Currently the largest artificial satellite ever is the International Space Station.


There are three basic categories of (non-military) satellite services: Fixed, Mobile and Scientific Research (commercial and noncommercial) Fixed satellite services handle hundreds of billions of voice, data, and video transmission tasks across all countries and continents between certain points on the Earth’s surface. Mobile satellite systems help connect remote regions, vehicles, ships, people and aircraft to other parts of the world and/or other mobile or stationary communications units, in addition to serving as navigation systems. Scientific research satellites provide meteorological information, land survey data (e.g. remote sensing), Amateur (HAM) Radio, and other different scientific research applications such as earth science, marine science, and atmospheric research.

• Astronomical satellites are satellites used for observation of distant planets, galaxies, and other outer space objects.
• Biosatellites are satellites designed to carry living organisms, generally for scientific experimentation.
• Communication satellites are satellites stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications. Modern communications satellites typically use geosynchronous orbits, Molniya orbits or Low Earth orbits.
• Earth observation satellites are satellites intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, map making etc.
• Navigational satellites are satellites which use radio time signals transmitted to enable mobile receivers on the ground to determine their exact location. The relatively clear line of sight between the satellites and receivers on the ground, combined with ever-improving electronics, allows satellite navigation systems to measure location to accuracies on the order of a few meters in real time.
• Killer satellites are satellites that are designed to destroy enemy warheads, satellites, and other space assets.
• Miniaturized satellites are satellites of unusually low masses and small sizes. New classifications are used to categorize these satellites: minisatellite (500–1000 kg), microsatellite (below 100 kg), nanosatellite (below 10 kg).
• Reconnaissance satellites are Earth observation satellite or communications satellite deployed for military or intelligence applications. Very little is known about the full power of these satellites, as governments who operate them usually keep information pertaining to their reconnaissance satellites classified.
• Recovery satellites are satellites that provide a recovery of reconnaissance, biological, space-production and other payloads from orbit to Earth.
• Space-based solar power satellites are proposed satellites that would collect energy from sunlight and transmit it for use on Earth or other places.
• Space stations are artificial orbital structures that are designed for human beings to live on in outer space. A space station is distinguished from other crewed spacecraft by its lack of major propulsion or landing facilities. Space stations are designed for medium-term living in orbit, for periods of weeks, months, or even years.
• Tether satellites are satellites which are connected to another satellite by a thin cable called a tether.
• Weather satellites are primarily used to monitor Earth’s weather and climate.[18]

Geosynchronous Orbit


The first satellite, Sputnik 1, was put into orbit around Earth and was therefore in geocentric orbit. This is the most common type of orbit by far, with approximately 2,787 active artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. Geocentric orbits may be further classified by their altitude, inclination and eccentricity.

Centric classifications
• Galactocentric orbit: An orbit around the centre of a galaxy. The Sun follows this type of orbit about the galactic centre of the Milky Way.
• Geocentric orbit: An orbit around the planet Earth, such as the Moon or artificial satellites.
• Heliocentric orbit: An orbit around the Sun. In our Solar System, all planets, comets, and asteroids are in such orbits, as are many artificial satellites and pieces of space debris. Moons by contrast are not in a heliocentric orbit but rather orbit their parent planet.
• Areocentric orbit: An orbit around the planet Mars, such as by moons or artificial satellites.

Altitude classifications
• Low Earth orbit (LEO): Geocentric orbits ranging in altitude from 180 km – 2,000 km (1,200 mi)
• Medium Earth orbit (MEO): Geocentric orbits ranging in altitude from 2,000 km (1,200 mi) – 35,786 km (22,236 mi). Also known as an intermediate circular orbit.
• Geosynchronous orbit (GEO): Geocentric circular orbit with an altitude of 35,786 kilometres (22,236 mi). The period of the orbit equals one sidereal day, coinciding with the rotation period of the Earth. The speed is approximately 3,000 metres per second (9,800 ft/s).
• High Earth orbit (HEO): Geocentric orbits above the altitude of geosynchronous orbit 35,786 km (22,236 mi).

Altitude Comparison Chart

Inclination classifications
• Inclined orbit: An orbit whose inclination in reference to the equatorial plane is not zero degrees.
• Polar orbit: An orbit that passes above or nearly above both poles of the planet on each revolution. Therefore, it has an inclination of (or very close to) 90 degrees.
• Polar sun synchronous orbit: A nearly polar orbit that takes advantage of nodal precession such that a satellite in such an orbit passes the equator at the same local time on every pass. Useful for image taking satellites because shadows will be nearly the same on every pass, and for solar observation satellites because they can have a continuous view of the Sun throughout the year.

Eccentricity classifications
• Circular orbit: An orbit that has an eccentricity of 0 and whose path traces a circle.
• Hohmann transfer orbit: An orbit that moves a spacecraft from one approximately circular orbit, usually the orbit of a planet, to another, using two engine impulses. The perihelion of the transfer orbit is at the same distance from the Sun as the radius of one planet’s orbit, and the aphelion is at the other. The two rocket burns change the spacecraft’s path from one circular orbit to the transfer orbit, and later to the other circular orbit. This maneuver was named after Walter Hohmann.
• Elliptic orbit: An orbit with an eccentricity greater than 0 and less than 1 whose orbit traces the path of an ellipse.
• Geosynchronous transfer orbit: An elliptic orbit where the perigee is at the altitude of a Low Earth orbit (LEO) and the apogee at the altitude of a geosynchronous orbit. Satellites use this orbit to transfer to a geostationary orbit.
• Geostationary transfer orbit: A geosynchronous transfer orbit that is used to transfer to a geostationary orbit.
• Molniya orbit: A highly eccentric orbit with inclination of 63.4° and orbital period of half of a sidereal day (roughly 12 hours). Such a satellite spends most of its time over two designated areas of the planet (usually Russia and the United States).
• Tundra orbit: A highly eccentric orbit with inclination of 63.4° and orbital period of one sidereal day (roughly 24 hours). Such a satellite spends most of its time over a single designated area of the planet.

Synchronous classifications
• Synchronous orbit: An orbit where the satellite has an orbital period equal to the average rotational period (earth’s is: 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds) of the body being orbited and in the same direction of rotation as that body. To a ground observer such a satellite would trace an analemma (figure 8) in the sky.
• Semi-synchronous orbit (SSO): An orbit with an altitude of approximately 20,200 km (12,600 mi) and an orbital period equal to one-half of the average rotational period (Earth’s is approximately 12 hours) of the body being orbited
• Geosynchronous orbit (GSO): Orbits with an altitude of approximately 35,786 km (22,236 mi). Such a satellite would trace an analemma (figure 8) in the sky.
• Geostationary orbit (GEO): A geosynchronous orbit with an inclination of zero. To an observer on the ground this satellite would appear as a fixed point in the sky.[20]
▪ Clarke orbit: Another name for a geostationary orbit. Named after scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke.
• Supersynchronous orbit: A disposal / storage orbit above GSO/GEO. Satellites will drift west. Also a synonym for Disposal orbit.
• Subsynchronous orbit: A drift orbit close to but below GSO/GEO. Satellites will drift east.
• Graveyard orbit: An orbit a few hundred kilometers above geosynchronous that satellites are moved into at the end of their operation.
• Disposal orbit: A synonym for graveyard orbit.
• Junk orbit: A synonym for graveyard orbit.
• Areosynchronous orbit: A synchronous orbit around the planet Mars with an orbital period equal in length to Mars’ sidereal day, 24.6229 hours.
• Areostationary orbit (ASO): A circular areosynchronous orbit on the equatorial plane and about 17000 km (10557 miles) above the surface. To an observer on the ground this satellite would appear as a fixed point in the sky.
• Heliosynchronous orbit: A heliocentric orbit about the Sun where the satellite’s orbital period matches the Sun’s period of rotation. These orbits occur at a radius of 24,360 Gm (0.1628 AU) around the Sun, a little less than half of the orbital radius of Mercury.

Special classifications
• Sun-synchronous orbit: An orbit which combines altitude and inclination in such a way that the satellite passes over any given point of the planets’ surface at the same local solar time. Such an orbit can place a satellite in constant sunlight and is useful for imaging, spy, and weather satellites.
• Moon orbit: The orbital characteristics of Earth’s Moon. Average altitude of 384,403 kilometers (238,857 mi), elliptical–inclined orbit.

Pseudo-orbit classifications
• Horseshoe orbit: An orbit that appears to a ground observer to be orbiting a certain planet but is actually in co-orbit with the planet. See asteroids 3753 (Cruithne) and 2002 AA29.
• Suborbital spaceflight: A maneuver where a spacecraft approaches the height of orbit but lacks the velocity to sustain it.
• Lunar transfer orbit (LTO)
• Prograde orbit: An orbit with an inclination of less than 90°. Or rather, an orbit that is in the same direction as the rotation of the primary.
• Retrograde orbit: An orbit with an inclination of more than 90°. Or rather, an orbit counter to the direction of rotation of the planet. Apart from those in sun-synchronous orbit, few satellites are launched into retrograde orbit because the quantity of fuel required to launch them is much greater than for a prograde orbit. This is because when the rocket starts out on the ground, it already has an eastward component of velocity equal to the rotational velocity of the planet at its launch latitude.
• Halo orbit and Lissajous orbit: Orbits “around” Lagrangian points.

Satellite Subsystems
The satellite’s functional versatility is embedded within its technical components and its operations characteristics. Looking at the “anatomy” of a typical satellite, one discovers two modules.Note that some novel architectural concepts such as Fractionated spacecraft somewhat upset this taxonomy.

Spacecraft bus or service module
The bus module consists of the following subsystems: Structure, Telemetry, Power, Thermal Control and Attitude or Orbit Control.
The structural subsystem provides the mechanical base structure with adequate stiffness to withstand stress and vibrations experienced during launch, maintain structural integrity and stability while on station in orbit, and shields the satellite from extreme temperature changes and micro-meteorite damage. The telemetry subsystem monitors the on-board equipment operations, transmits equipment operation data to the earth control station, and receives the earth control station’s commands to perform equipment operation adjustments. The power subsystem may consist of solar panels to convert solar energy into electrical power, regulation and distribution functions, and batteries that store power and supply the satellite when it passes into the Earth’s shadow. Nuclear power sources (Radioisotope thermoelectric generator) have also been used in several successful satellite programs including the Nimbus program (1964–1978). The thermal control subsystem helps protect electronic equipment from extreme temperatures due to intense sunlight or the lack of sun exposure on different sides of the satellite’s body (e.g. optical solar reflector) The attitude and orbit control subsystem consists of sensors to measure vehicle orientation, control laws embedded in the flight software, and actuators (reaction wheels, thrusters). These apply the torques and forces needed to re-orient the vehicle to the desired attitude, keep the satellite in the correct orbital position, and keep antennas pointed in the right directions.

Communications Module
The second major module is the communication payload, which is made up of transponders. A transponder is capable of :
• Receiving uplinked radio signals from earth satellite transmission stations (antennas).
• Amplifying received radio signals
• Sorting the input signals and directing the output signals through input/output signal multiplexers to the proper downlink antennas for retransmission to earth satellite receiving stations (antennas).

Proposed Telesat LIghtspeed LEO Satellite

End of life
When satellites reach the end of their mission (this normally occurs within 3 or 4 years after launch), satellite operators have the option of de-orbiting the satellite, leaving the satellite in its current orbit or moving the satellite to a graveyard orbit. Historically, due to budgetary constraints at the beginning of satellite missions, satellites were rarely designed to be de-orbited. One example of this practice is the satellite Vanguard 1. Launched in 1958, Vanguard 1, the 4th artificial satellite to be put in Geocentric orbit, was still in orbit as of March 2015, as well as the upper stage of its launch rocket.

Instead of being de-orbited, most satellites are either left in their current orbit or moved to a graveyard orbit.As of 2002, the FCC requires all geostationary satellites to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life prior to launch.In cases of uncontrolled de-orbiting, the major variable is the solar flux, and the minor variables the components and form factors of the satellite itself, and the gravitational perturbations generated by the Sun and the Moon (as well as those exercised by large mountain ranges, whether above or below sea level). The nominal breakup altitude due to aerodynamic forces and temperatures is 78 km, with a range between 72 and 84 km. Solar panels, however, are destroyed before any other component at altitudes between 90 and 95 km.

Pollution and regulation
Generally liability has been covered by the Liability Convention. Issues like space debris, radio and light pollution are increasing in magnitude and at the same time lack progress in national or international regulation.With future increase in numbers of satellite constellations, like SpaceX Starlink, it is feared especially by the astronomical community, such as the IAU, that orbital pollution will increase significantly.A report from the SATCON1 workshop in 2020 concluded that the effects of large satellite constellations can severely affect some astronomical research efforts and lists six ways to mitigate harm to astronomy.Some notable satellite failures that polluted and dispersed radioactive materials are Kosmos 954, Kosmos 1402 and the Transit 5-BN-3. Using wood as an alternative material has been posited in order to reduce pollution and debris from satellites that reenter the atmosphere.

Space Surveillance Network
The United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a division of the United States Strategic Command, has been tracking objects in Earth’s orbit since 1957 when the Soviet Union opened the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik I. Since then, the SSN has tracked more than 26,000 objects. The SSN currently tracks more than 8,000-artificial orbiting objects. The rest have re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated, or survived re-entry and impacted the Earth. The SSN tracks objects that are 10 centimeters in diameter or larger; those now orbiting Earth range from satellites weighing several tons to pieces of spent rocket bodies weighing only 10 pounds. About seven percent are operational satellites (i.e. ~560 satellites), the rest are space debris. The United States Strategic Command is primarily interested in the active satellites, but also tracks space debris which upon reentry might otherwise be mistaken for incoming missiles.

Open source satellites
Several open source satellites both in terms of open source hardware and open source software were flown or are in development. The satellites have usually form of a CubeSat or PocketQube. In 2013 an amateur radio satellite OSSI-1 was launched and remained in orbit for about 2 months.In 2017 UPSat created by the Greek University of Patras and Libre Space Foundation remained in orbit for 18 months. In 2019 FossaSat-1 was launched.As of February 2021 the Portland State Aerospace Society is developing two open source satellites called OreSat and the Libre Space Foundation also has ongoing satellite projects.