You are on page 1of 14

Satellite orbits and constellations 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 02000 km (01240 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.

Eccentricity classifications
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 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. [15] 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. east. Subsynchronous orbit: A drift orbit close to but below GSO/GEO. Satellites will drift

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'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), ellipticalinclined 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.

A satellites orbit the Earth in one of two basic types of orbit. Circular satellite orbit: For a circular orbit, the distance from the Earth remains the same

at all times. Elliptical satellite orbit:

The elliptical orbit changes the distance to the Earth

Satellite orbits There are a number of definitions associated with various different types of satellite orbits: Geocentre : When satellites orbit the Earth, either in a circular or elliptical orbit, the satellite

orbit forms a plane that passes through the centre of gravity or geocentre of the Earth. Direction of rotation around the Earth: There are two ways in which a satellite orbit may be categorised:


The rotation around the earth is said to be posigrade when it rotates in

the same direction as the rotation of the Earth.


The rotation around the earth is said to be retrograde when it rotates in

the opposite direction to the rotation of the Earth

Ground track:

The ground track of a satellite is point on the Earth's surface where the

satellite is directly overhead as it moves around the globe. This forms a circle which has the geocentre at its centre. It is worth noting that geostationary satellites are a special case as they appear directly over the same point of the Earth all the time. This means that their ground track consists of a single point on the Earth's equator. Also for satellites with equatorial orbits the ground track is along the equator. For these orbits it is usually found that the ground-track shifts towards the west for each orbit because the Earth is rotating towards the east underneath the satellite.

Orbital nodes:

These are the points where the ground track passes from one hemisphere to

another. There are two for any non-equatorial orbit:

Ascending node:

This is the node where the ground-track passes from the southern

hemisphere to the northern hemisphere.

Descending node:

This is the node where the ground-track passes from the northern

to the southern hemisphere. Satellite height: For many orbit calculations it is necessary to consider the height of the

satellite above the geocentre. This is the height above the Earth plus the radius of the Earth. This is generally taken to be 3960 miles or 6370 km.

Orbit velocity:

For a circular orbit it is always the same. However in the case of an elliptical

one this is not the case as the speed changes dependent upon the position in the orbit. It reaches a maximum when it is closest to the Earth and it has to combat the greatest gravitational pull, and it is at its lowest speed when it is furthest away.

Angle of elevation:

The angle of elevation is the angle at which the satellite appears above

the horizontal. If the angle is too small then signals may be obstructed by nearby objects if the antenna is not very high. For those antennas that have an unobstructed view there are still problems with small angles of elevation. The reason is that signals have to travel through more of the Earth's atmosphere and are subjected to higher levels of attenuation as a result. An angle of five degrees is generally accepted as the minimum angle for satisfactory operation.

Angle of inclination:

Not all satellite orbits follow the equator - in fact most Low Earth

Orbits do not. It is therefore necessary to define the angle of inclination of the satellite orbit. The diagram below defines this

Angle of inclination of a satellite orbit

Other satellite orbit considerations

In order that a satellite can be used for communications purposes the ground station must be able to follow it in order to receive its signal, and transmit back to it. Communications will naturally only be possible when it is visible, and dependent upon the orbit it may only be visible for a short period of time. To ensure that communication is possible for the maximum amount of time there are a number of options that can be employed: The first is to use an elliptical orbit where the apogee is above the planned Earth station so

that the satellite remains visible for the maximum amount of time. Another option is to launch a number of satellites with the same orbit so that when one disappears from view, and communications are lost, another one appears. Generally three satellites are required to maintain almost uninterrupted communication. However the handover from one satellite to the next introduces additional complexity into the system, as well as having a requirement for at least three satellites.

Circular satellite orbit definitions

Circular orbits are classified in a number of ways. Terms such as Low Earth orbit, Geostationary orbit and the like detail distinctive elements of the orbit. A summary of circular orbit definitions is given in the table below:





Medium Earth Orbit Geosynchronous Orbit


1200 - 35790



Orbits once a day, but not necessarily in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth - not necessarily stationary

Geostationary Orbit



Orbits once a day and moves in the same direction as the Earth and therefore appears stationary above the same point on the Earth's surface. Can only be above the Equator.

High Earth Orbit


Above 35790

Satellite orbit definitions In some applications high Earth orbits may be required. For these applications the satellite will take longer than 24 hours to orbit the Earth, and path lengths may become very long resulting in additional delays for the round trip from the Earth to the satellite and back as well as increasing the levels of path loss. The choice of the satellite orbit will depend on its applications. While geostationary orbits are popular for applications such as direct broadcasting and for communications satellites, others such as GPS and even those satellites used for mobile phones are much lower.

The Low Earth Orbit, LEO is used for the vast majority of satellites. As the names imply, Low Earth Orbit is relatively low in altitude; the definition of LEO stating that the altitude range is between 200 and 1200 km above the Earth's surface

LEO basics
With Low Earth Orbit extending from 200 km to 1200 km it means that it is relatively low in altitude, although well above anything that a conventional aircraft can reach. However LEO is still very close to the Earth, especially when compared to other forms of satellite orbit including geostationary orbit. The low orbit altitude of leads to a number of characteristics: Orbit times are much less than for many other forms of orbit. The lower altitude means higher velocities are required to balance the earth's gravitational field. Typical velocities are very

approximately around 8 km/s, with orbit times sometimes of the order of 90 minutes, although these figures vary considerably with the exact details of the orbit. The lower orbit means the satellite and user are closer together and therefore path losses a less than for other orbits such as GEO The round trip time, RTT for the radio signals is considerably less than that experienced by geostationary orbit satellites. The actual time will depend upon factors such as the orbit altitude and the position of the user relative to the satellite.

Radiation levels are lower than experienced at higher altitudes. Less energy is expended placing the satellites in LEO than higher orbits. Some speed reduction may be experienced as a result of friction from the low, but measurable levels of gasses, especially at lower altitudes. An altitude of 300 km is normally accepted as the minimum for an orbit as a result of the increasing drag from the presence of gasses at low altitudes.

Applications for LEO satellites

A variety of different types of satellite use the LEO orbit levels. These include different types and applications including: Communications satellites - some communications satellites including the Iridium phone

system use LEO. Earth monitoring satellites use LEO as they are able to see the surface of the Earth more clearly as they are not so far away. They are also able to traverse the surface of the Earth. The International Space Station is in an LEO that varies between 320 km (199 miles) and 400 km (249 miles) above the Earth's surface. It can often be seen from the Earth's surface with the naked eye.

Space debris in LEO

Apart from the general congestion experienced in Low Earth Orbit, the situation is made much worse by the general level of space debris that exists. There is a real and growing risk of collision and major damage - any collisions themselves are likely to create further space debris. The US Joint Space Operations Center currently tracks over 8 500 objects that have dimensions larger than 10 centimetres. However debris with smaller dimensions can also cause significant damage and could render a satellite unserviceable after a collision.

GEO satellites
One very popular orbit format is the geostationary satellite orbit. The geostationary orbit is used by many applications including direct broadcast as well as communications or relay systems. The geostationary orbit has the advantage that the satellite remains in the same position throughout the day, and antennas can be directed towards the satellite and remain on track. This factor is of particular importance for applications such as direct broadcast TV where changing directions for the antenna would not be practicable. It is necessary to take care over the use of the abbreviations for geostationary orbit. Both GEO and GSO are seen, and both also used for geosynchronous orbit.

Geostationary orbit development

The idea of a geostationary orbit has been postulated for many years. One of the possible originators of the basic idea was a Russian theorist and science fiction writer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. However it was Herman Oberth and Herman Potocnik who wrote about orbiting stations at an altitude of 35 900 km above the Earth that had a rotational period of 24 hours making it appear to hover over a fixed point on the equator. The next major step forwards occurred when Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction write, published a serious article in Wireless World, a major UK electronics and radio publication, in October 1945. The article was entitled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World Coverage?" Clarke extrapolated what could be done with the German rocket technology of the day and looked at what might be possible in the future. He postulated that it would be possible to provide complete global coverage with just three geostationary satellites.

Arthur C Clarke's Geostationary Orbiting Satellites Concept In the article, Clarke determined the orbital characteristics required as well as the transmitter power levels, the generation of solar power could be used, even calculating the impact of solar eclipses. Clarke's article was well ahead of its time. It took until 1963 before NASA was able to start launching satellites that could test the theory. The first serviceable satellite able to start testing the theory was Syncom 2 which was launched on 26 July 1963. [Syncom 1 failed as it was unable to reach its correct geostationary orbit].

Geostationary orbit basics

As the height of a satellite increases, so the time for the satellite to orbit increases. At a height of 35790 km, it takes 24 hours for the satellite to orbit. This type of orbit is known as a geosynchronous orbit, i.e. it is synchronized with the Earth. One particular form of geosynchronous orbit is known as a geostationary orbit. In this type of orbit the satellite rotates in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth and has an approximate 24 hour period. This means that it revolves at the same angular velocity as the Earth and in the same direction and therefore remains in the same position relative to the Earth. In order to ensure that the satellite rotates at exactly the same speed as the Earth, it is necessary to clarify exactly what the time is for the rotation of the Earth. For most timekeeping applications, the Earth's rotation is measured relative to the Sun's mean position, and the rotation of the earth combined with the rotation around the Sun provide the length of time for a day. However this is not the exact rotation that we are interested in to give a geostationary orbit - the time required is just that for one rotation. This time period is known as a sidereal day and it is 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds long. Geometry dictates that the only way in which an orbit that rotates once per day can remain over exactly the same spot on the Earth's surface is that it moves in the same direction as the earth's rotation. Also it must not move north or south for any of its orbit. This can only occur if it remains over the equator.

Geostationary orbit can only be over the Equator Different orbits can be seen from the diagram. As all orbital planes need to pass through the geocentre of the Earth, the two options available are shown. Even if both orbits rotate at the same speed as the Earth, the one labelled geosynchronous will move north of the equator for part of the day, and below for the other half - it will not be stationary. For a satellite to be stationary, it must be above the Equator.

Geostationary satellite drift

Even when satellites are placed into a geostationary orbit, there are several forces that can act on it to change its position slowly over time. Factors including the earth's elliptical shape, the pull of the Sun and Moon and others act to increase the satellite orbital inclination. In particular the non-circular shape of the of the Earth around the Equator tends to draw the satellites towards two stable equilibrium points, one above the Indian

Ocean and the other very roughly around the other side of the World.. This results in what is termed as an east-west libration or movement back and forth. To overcome these movements, fuel is carried by the satellites to enable them to carry out "stationkeeping" where the satellite is returned to its desired position. The period between station-keeping manoeuvres is determined by the allowable tolerance on the satellite which is mainly determined by the ground antenna beamwidth. This will mean that no re-adjustment of the antennas is required. Often the useful life of a satellite is determined by the time for which fuel will allow the stationkeeping to be undertaken. Often this will be several years. After this the satellite can drift towards one of the two equilibrium points, and possibly re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. The preferred option is for the satellites to utilise some last fuel to lift them into a higher and increasing orbit to prevent them from interfering with other satellites.

Geostationary orbit coverage

A single geostationary satellite obviously cannot provide complete global coverage. However, a single geostationary satellite can see approximately 42% of the Earth's surface with coverage falling off towards the satellite is not able to "see" the surface. This occurs around the equator and also towards the polar regions.

Geostationary satellite coverage For a constellation of three satellites equally spaced around the globe, it is possible to provide complete coverage around the equator and up to latitudes of 81 both north and south. The lack of polar coverage is not a problem for most users, although where polar coverage is needed, satellites using other forms of orbit are needed.

Geostationary orbit and path length / delay

One of the issues with using satellites in a geostationary orbit is the delay introduced by the path length. The path length to any geostationary satellite is a minimum of 22300 miles. This assumes that the user is directly underneath the satellite to provide the shortest path length. In reality the user is unlikely to be in this position and the path length will be longer.

Assuming the shortest path length, this gives a single trip i.e. to the satellite or back of a minimum of around 120 milli-seconds. This means that the round trip from the ground to the satellite and back is roughly a quarter of a second. Therefore to obtain a response in a conversation can take half a second as the signal must pass through the satellite twice - once on the outward journey to the remote listener, and then again with the response. This delay can make telephone conversations rather difficult when satellite links are used. It can also be seen when news reporters as using satellite links. When asked a question from the broadcasters studio, the reporter appears to take some time to answer. This delay is the reason why many long distance links use cables rather than satellites as the delays incurred are far less.

Advantages and disadvantages of geostationary orbit satellites

While the geostationary orbit is widely used for many satellite applications it is not suitable for all situations. There are several advantages and disadvantages to be taken into consideration:



Long path length, and hence losses when compared to LEO, or MEO.

Satellites more costly to install in GEO in view of greater altitude. Long path length introduces delays.

Satellite always in same position

Geostationary satellite orbits can

only be above the equator and relative to earth - antennas do therefore polar regions cannot not need re-orientation be covered. Despite the disadvantages of using satellites in geostationary orbit, they are still widely used because of the overriding advantage of the satellite always being in the same position relative to a given place on the Earth.

HEO satellites
While circular orbits may be the obvious solution for many satellites, elliptical orbits have many advantages for certain applications. The elliptical orbit is often called the Highly Elliptical Orbit, HEO. As a result of this many satellites are placed in elliptical orbits, especially where certain attributes are required. For example it does not require the orbits to be equatorial like the geostationary orbit. This means that polar and high latitude areas can be covered with highly elliptical orbits, HEO. The satellite elliptical orbit gives a number of coverage options that are not available when circular orbits are used.

Highly elliptical orbit, HEO, basics

As the name implies, an elliptical orbit or as it is more commonly known the highly elliptical orbit, HEO, follows the curve of an ellipse. However one of the key features of an elliptical orbit is that the satellite in an elliptical orbit about Earth moves much faster when it is close to Earth than when it is further away. For any ellipse, there are two focal points, and one of these is the geo-centre of the Earth. Another feature of an elliptical orbit is that there are two other major points. One is where the satellite is furthest from the Earth. This point is known as the apogee - this is where the satellite moves at its slowest as the gravitational pull from the earth is lower. The point where it is closest to the Earth is known as the perigee - this is where the satellite moves at its fastest.

Highly elliptical satellite orbit, HEO If the satellite orbit is very elliptical, the satellite will spend most of its time near apogee where it moves very slowly. This means that the satellite can be in view over its operational area for most of the time, and falling out of view when the satellite comes closer to the Earth and passes over the blind side of the Earth. By placing a number of satellites in the same orbit, but equally spaced apart, permanent coverage can be achieved. The plane of a satellite orbit is also important. Some may orbit around the equator, whereas others may have different orbits. The angle of inclination of a satellite orbit is shown below. It is the angle between a line perpendicular to the plane of the orbit and a line passing through the poles. This means that an orbit directly above the equator will have an inclination of 0 (or 180), and one passing over the poles will have an angle of 90.

Angle of inclination of a satellite orbit Those orbits above the equator are generally called equatorial obits, whilst those above the poles are called polar orbits.

Highly elliptical orbit, HEO, applications

The highly elliptical satellite orbit can be used to provide coverage over any point on the globe. The HEO is not limited to equatorial orbits like the geostationary orbit and the resulting lack of high latitude and polar coverage. As a result it ability to provide high latitude and polar coverage, countries such as Russia which need coverage over polar and near polar areas make significant use of highly elliptical orbits, HEO. With two satellites in any orbit, they are able to provide continuous coverage. The main disadvantage is that the satellite position from a point on the Earth does not remain the same.