Galileo satellite in space geostationary orbit



In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an object which has been placed into orbit by human endeavour. Such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as the Moon.

The world's first artificial satellite, the Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Since then, thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit around the Earth. Some satellites, notably space stations, have been launched in parts and assembled in orbit. Artificial satellites originate from more than 50 countries and have used the satellite launching capabilities of ten nations. A few hundred satellites are currently operational, whereas thousands of unused satellites and satellite fragments orbit the Earth as space debris. A few space probes have been placed into orbit around other bodies and become artificial satellites to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun.

Satellites are used for a large number of purposes. Common types include military and civilian Earth observation satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, weather satellites, and research satellites. Space stations and human spacecraft in orbit are also satellites. 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.

Satellites are usually semi-independent computer-controlled systems. Satellite subsystems attend many tasks, such as power generation, thermal control, telemetry, attitude control and orbit control.


The first artificial satellite was Sputnik 1, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, and initiating the Soviet Sputnik program, with Sergei Korolev as chief designer (there is a crater on the lunar far side which bears his name). This in turn triggered the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Sputnik 1 helped to identify the density of high atmospheric layers through measurement of its orbital change and provided data on radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere. The unanticipated announcement of Sputnik 1's success precipitated the Sputnik crisis in the United States and ignited the so-called Space Race within the Cold War.

Sputnik 2 was launched on November 3, 1957 and carried the first living passenger into orbit, a dog named Laika.

In May, 1946, Project RAND had released the Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship, which stated, "A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the Twentieth Century." The United States had been considering launching orbital satellites since 1945 under the Bureau of Aeronautics of the United States Navy. The United States Air Force's Project RAND eventually released the above report, but did not believe that the satellite was a potential military weapon; rather, they considered it to be a tool for science, politics, and propaganda. In 1954, the Secretary of Defense stated, "I know of no American satellite program."

On July 29, 1955, the White House announced that the U.S. intended to launch satellites by the spring of 1958. This became known as Project Vanguard. On July 31, the Soviets announced that they intended to launch a satellite by the fall of 1957.

Following pressure by the American Rocket Society, the National Science Foundation, and the International Geophysical Year, military interest picked up and in early 1955 the Army and Navy were working on Project Orbiter, two competing programs: the army's which involved using a Jupiter C rocket, and the civilian/Navy Vanguard Rocket, to launch a satellite. At first, they failed: initial preference was given to the Vanguard program, whose first attempt at orbiting a satellite resulted in the explosion of the launch vehicle on national television. But finally, three months after Sputnik 2, the project succeeded; Explorer 1 became the United States' first artificial satellite on January 31, 1958.

In June 1961, three-and-a-half years after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Air Force used resources of the United States Space Surveillance Network to catalog 115 Earth-orbiting satellites.

Early satellites were each constructed as a unique "one-off" designs. With growth in the economic sphere of geosynchronous (GEO) satellite communication, multiple instances of a single satellite design began to be built on a single model platform; these are called satellite buses. The first standardized satellite bus design was the HS-333 GEO commsat, launched in 1972.

The largest artificial satellite currently orbiting the Earth is the International Space Station.


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 Soviets 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 man-made 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.

A search of the NSSDC Master Catalog at the end of October 2010 listed 6,578 satellites launched into orbit since 1957, the latest being Chang'e 2, on 1 October 2010.


There are three basic categories of non-military satellite services:

Fixed satellite services

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

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 (commercial and noncommercial)

Scientific research satellites provide us with 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.


Anti-Satellite weapons/"Killer Satellites" are satellites that are designed to destroy enemy warheads, satellites, and other space assets.

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.

Communications satellites are satellites stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications. Modern communications satellites typically use geosynchronous orbits, Molniya orbits or Low Earth orbits.

Miniaturized satellites are satellites of unusually low masses and small sizes. New classifications are used to categorize these satellites: minisatellite (500–100 kg), microsatellite (below 100 kg), nanosatellite (below 10 kg).

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.

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.

Earth observation satellites are satellites intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, map making etc. (See especially Earth Observing System.)

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.

Recovery satellites are satellites that provide a recovery of reconnaissance, biological, space-production and other payloads from orbit to Earth.

Manned spacecraft (spaceships) are large satellites able for put human into (and beyond) an orbit, being on it and recovery back to Earth. Spacecrafts, and orbital parts-spaceplanes of reusable systems also, has a major propulsion or landing facilities, and often uses as transport to and from the orbital stations.

Space stations are man-made orbital structures that are designed for human beings to live on in outer space. A space station is distinguished from other manned 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.


The first satellite, Sputnik 1, was put into orbit around Earth and was therefore in geocentric orbit. By far this is the most common type of orbit with approximately 2456 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. Geocentric orbits may be further classified by their altitude, inclination and eccentricity.

The commonly used altitude classifications are Low Earth orbit (LEO), Medium Earth orbit (MEO) and High Earth orbit (HEO). Low Earth orbit is any orbit below 2000 km, and Medium Earth orbit is any orbit higher than that but still below the altitude for geosynchronous orbit at 35786 km. High Earth orbit is any orbit higher than the altitude for geosynchronous orbit.

Centric classifications

Geocentric orbit: An orbit around the planet Earth, such as the Moon or artificial satellites. Currently there are approximately 2465 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth.

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.

The general structure of a satellite is that it is connected to the earth stations that are present on the ground and connected through terrestrial links.

Altitude classifications

Low Earth orbit (LEO): Geocentric orbits ranging in altitude from 0–2000 km (0–1240 miles)

Medium Earth orbit (MEO): Geocentric orbits ranging in altitude from 2,000 km (1,200 mi) to just below geosynchronous orbit at 35,786 km (22,236 mi). Also known as an intermediate circular orbit.

High Earth orbit (HEO): Geocentric orbits above the altitude of geosynchronous orbit 35,786 km (22,236 mi).

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 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.


Circular orbit: An orbit that has an eccentricity of 0 and whose path traces a circle.

Hohmann transfer orbit: An orbital maneuver that moves a spacecraft from one circular orbit to another using two engine impulses. 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.

Geostationary 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 geostationary orbit.

Molniya orbit: A highly elliptic 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 (specifically Russia and the United States).

Tundra orbit: A highly elliptic 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 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.

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.



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's 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 kilometres (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.

Exo-orbit: A maneuver where a spacecraft approaches the height of orbit but lacks the velocity to sustain it.

Suborbital spaceflight: A synonym for exo-orbit.

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 imbedded 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 - This bus module consist of the following subsystems:

The Structural Subsystems

The structural subsystem provides the mechanical base structure, shields the satellite from extreme temperature changes and micro-meteorite damage, and controls the satellite's spin functions.

The Telemetry Subsystems (aka Command and Data Handling, C&DH)

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 Subsystems

The power subsystem consists of solar panels and backup batteries that generate power when the satellite passes into the Earth's shadow. Nuclear power sources (Radioisotope thermoelectric generators) have been used in several successful satellite programs including the Nimbus program (1964–1978).

The Thermal Control Subsystems

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 Subsystems

The attitude and orbit control subsystem consists of small rocket thrusters that keep the satellite in the correct orbital position and keep antennas positioning in the right directions.

Communication payload

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).


When satellites reach the end of their mission, 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 manmade satellite put in Geocentric orbit, was still in orbit as of August 2009.

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 now requires all geostationary satellites to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life prior to launch.



This list includes countries with an independent capability to place satellites in orbit, including production of the necessary launch vehicle. Note: many more countries have the capability to design and build satellites but are unable to launch them, instead relying on foreign launch services. This list does not consider those numerous countries, but only lists those capable of launching satellites indigenously, and the date this capability was first demonstrated. Does not include consortium satellites or multi-national satellites.

Attacks on satellites (Anti-satellite weapons)

In recent times satellites have been hacked by militant organizations to broadcast propaganda and to pilfer classified information from military communication networks.

For testing purposes, satellites in low earth orbit have been destroyed by ballistic missiles launched from earth. Russia, the United States and China have demonstrated the ability to eliminate satellites. In 2007 the Chinese military shot down an aging weather satellite, followed by the US Navy shooting down a defunct spy satellite in February 2008.


Due to the low received signal strength of satellite transmissions, they are prone to jamming by land-based transmitters. Such jamming is limited to the geographical area within the transmitter's range. GPS satellites are potential targets for jamming, but satellite phone and television signals have also been subjected to jamming.

Also, it is trivial to transmit a carrier radio signal to a geostationary satellite and thus interfere with the legitimate uses of the satellite's transponder. It is common for Earth stations to transmit at the wrong time or on the wrong frequency in commercial satellite space, and dual-illuminate the transponder, rendering the frequency unusable. Satellite operators now have sophisticated monitoring that enables them to pinpoint the source of any carrier and manage the transponder space effectively.







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