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Introduction to Global Satellite Systems
Several different types of global satellite communications systems are in various stages of development. Each system, either planned or existing, has a unique configuration optimized to support a unique business plan based on the services offered and the markets targeted. In the last few years more than 60 global systems have been proposed to meet the growing demand for international communications services. More are being planned and these are in addition to a large number of new regional systems. Some of the global systems intend to provide global phone service, filling in where ground-based wireless systems leave off o r providing seamless connectivity between different systems. Others intend to provide global data connectivity, either for low-cost short message applications such as equipment monitoring, or for high-speed Internet access anywhere in the world. The global phone systems will target two very different markets. The first is the international business user, who want the ability to use a single mobile wireless phone anywhere in the world. This is impossible today on terrestrial systems because mobile phone stan dards are different from region to region. The second market is unserved and underserved communities where mobile and even basic telecommunications services are unavailable. Because global and regional satellite systems are relatively new in non military communications, these market approaches still are untested and it is likely that economics, user acceptance rates, technical difficulties and other factors will cause adjustments in the business plans of many of these systems.
The Types of Satellite Systems The design of a satellite system is closely tied to the market it is intended to serve and the type of communications services it is intended to offer. There are four general system designs, which are differentiated by the type of orbit in which the satellites operate: Geostationary Orbit (GEO), Low-earth Orbit, Medium-earth Orbit (MEO), and Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO). Each of these has various strengths and weaknesses in its ability to provide particular communications services. Outside of the well-defined GEO universe, the differences between these
GEOSTATIONARY (GEO) GEO systems orbit the Earth at a fixed distance of 35. and video services. The majority of communications satellites are GEOs and these systems will continue to provide the bulk of the communications satellite capacity for many years to come. for example. long distance telephone companies and carry the bulk of nation -wide television broadcasts. Inmarsat. are variously described as LEOs and MEOs. However.S. MEOs. The same caution should be applied to ascribing a particular satellite type's limitations to any one commercial system. For example. the large antennae and power requirements for GEO systems limited their effectiveness for small -terminal and mobile services. Constantly evolving technology along with newly developing markets and service definitions combine to blur the lines between one satellite system and another.300 miles).systems is often not absolute and the acronyms applied to a system can be confusing and sometimes misleading. since each uses several strategies for minimizing or overcoming the limitations inherent in satellite designs. LEOs and HEOs. Until recently. newer high-powered GEO satellites using clusters of concentrated "spot beams" can operate with smaller terrestrial terminals than ever before and can support some mobile applications. GEO satellite coverage typically degrades beyond 20 degrees North Latitude and 20 degrees South Latitude. GEO satellites provide back up voice capacity for the majority of the U.786 kilometers (22. thereby keeping the satellite stationary over a particular spot on the Earth. Geostationary satellites orbit the Earth above the equator and cover one third of the Earth's surface at a time. GEO systems have a proven track record of reliability and operational predictability not yet possible for the more sophisticated orbit al designs . GEOs support voice. The satellite's speed at this altitude matches that of the Earth's rotation. which commonly are distributed via from a central point to affiliate stations throughout the country. most often providing fixed services to a particular region. Although examples of commercial systems employing these satellites are given. Several systems. keep in mind that each system has unique characteristics that may not match precisely the general descriptions. Examples of GEO systems include INTELSAT. some systems may employ more than one type of satellite. The definitions below are meant to describe the general characteristics of GEOs. For example. and PanAmSat. data.
For example. like all other satellite systems. This is a significant disadvantage of GEO systems as compared to LEO and MEO systems. But. along with their high bandwidth capacity. excess capacity on GEO systems often is reserved in the form of leased circuits f or use as a backup to other communications methods. PRO: Because of their capacity and configuration. since only a few large satellites carry the load for the entire system. especially over long-term contract arrangements. Summary of GEO Pros and Cons y y y y PRO: GEO systems have significantly greater available bandwidth than the LEO and MEO systems described below. CON: Some users have expressed concern with the transmission delays associated with GEO systems. may provide a cost advantage over other system types. GEOs are often more cost-effective for carrying high-volume traffic. because GEO systems have fewer satellites and these are in a fixed location over the Earth. voice and broadband services that may be unpractical for other types of systems. the opportunities for line of sight communication are fewer than for systems in which the satellites "travel" across the sky. their high orbital altitude allows GEOs to remain in orbit longer than systems operating closer to Earth. However. In addition. These characteristics. This permits them to provide two-way data.now being deployed. In addition. a GEO satellite loss is somewhat more consequential than for the systems described below. require line -ofsight communication paths between terrestrial antennae and the satellites. especial ly for mobile applications and in urban areas where tall buildings and other structures may block line-of-sight communication for handheld mobile terminals. . sophisticated echo cancellation and other technologies have permitted GEOs to be used successfully for both voice and high-speed data applications. CON: GEO systems. GEO systems are also less complicated to maintain because their fixed location in the sky requires relatively little tracking capability in ground equipment. their more distant orbit also requires relatively large terrestrial antennae and high-powered equipment and are subject to transmission delays. p articularly for high-speed data. However.
minimizing the possibility that the network will loose the transmission. Because of the fast -flying satellites." In addition. a LEO system must "hand off" between satellites in order to complete the transmission. The need for complex tracking schemes is minimized. because the signals to and from the satellites need to travel a relatively short distance. this can be accomplished by constantly relaying signals between the satellite and various ground stations. A typical LEO satellite takes less than two hours to orbit the Earth. In addition. in LEO systems designed to handle only short -burst transmissions. if a transmission takes more than the few minutes that any one satellite is in view. each describing the relative mass of the satellites used as well as their service characteristics. which can overcome the difficulties caused by obstructions such as trees and buildings. a system of LEO satellites is designed to maximize the ability of ground equipment to "see" a satellite at any time. Their size and bandwidth usage limits the amount of traffic the system can . The advantage of the LEO system is that the satellites' proximity to the ground enables them to transmit signals with no or very little delay . LEO systems must incorporate sophisticated tracking and switching equipment to maintain consistent service coverage. LEO systems are designed to have more than one satellite in view from any spot on Earth at any given time. There are two types of LEO systems.000 kilometers above the Earth (between 400 miles and 1. or by communicating between the satellites themselves using "inter-satellite links. antennae) than can systems using a higher orbit. LEOs can operate with much smaller user equipment (e. unlike GEOs. As a consequence. Little LEO satellites are very small. In addition. travel across the sky.g. which means that a single satellite is "in view" of ground equipment for a only a few minutes. Big LEOs and Little LEOs. but not obviated. and use very little bandwidth for communications.600 miles) and.LOW-EARTH ORBIT (LEO) LEO systems fly about 1.. unlike GEO systems. In general. often weighing no more than a human being.
PRO: Because of the relatively small size of the satel lites deployed and the smaller size of the ground equipment required. the lower LEO . The proposed Teledesic and Skybridge systems are examples of essentially Big LEO systems optimized for packet-switched data rather than voice. Big LEO systems are designed to carry voice traffic as well as data. CON: The small coverage area of a LEO satellite means that a LE O system must coordinate the flight paths and communications hand offs a large number of satellites at once. Summary of LEO Pros and Cons y y y y PRO: The transmission delay associated with LEO systems is the lowest of all of the systems. such as paging. They are the technology behind "satellite phones" or "global mobile personal communications system" (GMPCS) services now being developed and launched. Smaller Big LEO constellations also are planned to serve limited regions of the globe. Most Big LEO systems also will offer mobile data services and some system operators intend to offer semi-fixed voice and data services to areas that have little or no terrestrial telephony infrastructure. These systems share the same advantages and drawbacks of other LEOs and intend to operate with inter-satellite links to minimize transmission times and avoid dropped signals.carry at any given time. However. There are two reasons for this: first. Globalstar and the regional Constellation and ECO-8 systems. such systems often employ mechanisms to maximize capacity. Little LEO systems support services that require short mes saging and occasional low-bandwidth data transport. fleet tracking and remote monitoring of stationary monitors for everything from tracking geoplatonic movements to checking on vending machine status. The low bandwidth usage may allow a LEO system to provide more cost effective service for occasional-use applications than systems that maximize their value based on bulk usage. the Little LEO systems are expected to cost less to implement than the other satellite systems discussed here. CON: LEO satellites have a shorter life span than other systems mentioned here. Final Analysis and Leo One." which will handle broadband data. such as frequency reuse schemes and load delay tactics. Examples of Big LEO systems include Iridium. making the LEOs dependent on highly complex and sophisticated control and switching systems. An emerging third category of LEO systems is the so -called "super LEOs" or "mega LEOs. Examples of Little LEO systems include Orbcomm.
MEDIUM EARTH ORBIT (MEO) MEO systems operate at about 10.500 miles) above the Earth. The MEO orbit is a compromise between the LEO and GEO orbits. mobile equipment and with less latency (signal delay). before the MEO designation came into wide use. Compared to LEOs. the frequent transmission rates necessary in LEO systems mean that LEO satellites generally have a shorter battery life than others. MEO systems were considered Big LEOs. the more distant orbit requires fewer satellites to provide coverage than LEOs because each satellite may be in view of any particular location for several hours. To combat this difficulty. MEO constellations have 10 to 17 satellites distributed over two or three orbital planes. they may not always be at an optimal elevation. Most planned MEO systems will offer phone services similar to the Big LEOs. Compared to GEOs.orbit is more subject to the gravitational pull of the Earth and second. Although MEO satellites are in view longer than LEOs.500 and 6. Examples of MEO systems include ICO Global Communications and the proposed Orblink from Orbital Sciences. Summary of MEO Pros and Cons y PRO: MEO systems will require far fewer satellites than LEOs. In fact. Typically. which in turn requires more sophisticated tracking and switching schemes than GEOs. MEOs can operate effectively with smaller. which is lower than the GEO orbit and higher than most LEO orbits. MEO systems often feature significant coverage overlap from satellite to satellite. .000 kilometers (between 1.
HIGHLY ELLIPTICAL ORBIT (HEO) HEO systems operate differently than LEOs.y y y reducing overall system complexity and cost. As the name implies. The HEO path typically is not centered on the Earth. For example. MEOs or GEOs. especially near the south pole. Examples of HEO systems include Ellipso and the proposed Pentriad. like LEOs. as well as some Big LEOs. thus requiring a larger antenna than a traditional mobile phone. as shown in the illustration. . Several of the proposed global communications satellite systems actually are hybrids of the four varieties reviewed above. CON: MEO systems. requiring more frequent launches to maintain the system over time. have a much shorter life expectancy than GEOs. the satellite¶s beam covers more of the Earth from farther away. CON: MEO satellites. targeted at the voice communications market may have a disadvantage when compared with cellular and other terrestrial wireless networks. most often including a GEO or MEO satellite orbital plane around the equator to ensure maximum coverage in the densely populated zone between 40 degrees North Latitude and 40 degrees South Latitude. while still requiring fewer technological fixes to eliminate signal delay than GEOs. The orbits are designed to maximize the amount of time each satellite spends in view of populated areas. This orbit causes the satellite to move around the Earth faster when it is traveling close to the Earth and slower the farther away it gets. In addition. PRO: MEO systems's larger capacity relative to LEOs may enable them to be more flexible in meeting shifting market demand for either voice or data services. unlike most LEOs. the satellites orbit the Earth in an elliptical path rather than the circular paths of LEOs and GEOs. Therefore. By contrast. as LEOs. A satellite signal is inherently weaker and is more subject to interference than those of terrestrial systems. MEOs and GEOs are. HEO systems do not offer continuous coverage over outlying geographic regions. all of the proposed HEO communications systems are hybrids. the trend in the mobile phone market is toward smaller and smaller phones.
the necessary distance traveled to make a complete orbit increases geometrically. For instance. the Moon orbits the Earth at an altitude of approximately 384.000 miles or so above the Earth. necessitating special shielding. thus requiring fewer satellites than LEOs and providing superior line-of-sight in comparison to most LEOs or GEOs. The path traced out by the satellite relative to the Earth's surface is that of a slanted figure -eight. Below 124 miles. 22. At geosynchronous orbit.236 mi) is known as Medium Earth Orbit. Objects in low earth orbit revolve around the Earth frequently. Low earth orbit. and the number of orbits per day decreases. by outer space standards.399 km (238. satell ites orbit only once per day. for instance. © 1999 CompassRose International. the GPS navigation system is operated by four satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The International Space Station. The region from 1. medium earth orbit. and as such are synchronized with the rotation speed of the Earth. and above 1. CON: Coverage of a typical HEO system is not as complete as other orbital designs. causing surface impac t. MEO. the Earth's radiation belts damage electronic equipment. although they will provide good coverage over most population centers. Low earth orbit is only slightly above the Earth.243 miles altitude to geostationary orbit(35.786 kilometers or 22. fluctuates between 320 km an d 347 km above the surface of the Earth. and geostationary orbit are known as LEO.Summary of HEO Pros and Cons y y PRO: The HEO orbital design maximizes the satellites' time spent over populated areas. and GSO respectively. orbits rapidly degrade. putting GSO at about 10% of the way to the Moon. hence the name.1240 miles) in altitude. Low earth orbit is only about 1% of the way to the Moon. Inc.854 mi). A geosynchronous orbit means that a satellite returns to the same spot in the sky at the same time each day. probably the most familiar object currently in orbit aside from the Moon. By comparison. allowing for three to be in the . which are kept geosynchronous to simplify communications calculati ons. As you move up in altitude and maintain a constant speed. with the International Space Station making about 17 orbits per day. 200 2000 km (124 . This is the orbit used by many communications satellites.240 miles or even less.
and also provides a better view than GSO. The sun rises and sets anywhere between every 45 minutes to every few hours from the vantage point of someone in low earth orbit. This is the proposed location for a space elevator. because GSO gets almost continuous sunshine. . Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) is a special case of geosynchronous orbit where the satellites stays at an absolutely fixed point relative to the Earth's surface at all times. as all portions of the elevator length would need to be synchronous to prevent twisting and buckling.sky at any given time. However. Most proposals for space hotels are placed in low earth orbit. whereas LEO gets sunshine onl y about half the time. This must be above the equator. for solar powersatellites. the minimum necessary for triangulation of a ground location. Low earth orbit is comfortingly close to the Earth. you'd want to put them in GSO.
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