Satellite Orbits

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At 22, miles above the earth, craft inserted into orbit over the equator and travel at approximately 6, miles per hour around the equator and which follow the earths rotation are said to be in Geostationary orbit.

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Geostationary orbits allow these satellites to maintain their relative position over the earth's surface. Since the satellite stays above the same spot on earth's surface, geostationary orbits are also called geosynchronous. Craft in geostationary orbit don't need to be tracked, reducing the cost of earthstation antennas. Geostationary craft also have the advantage of height, giving them the broadest footprint the signal broadcast covers the most earth surface , but this same height makes them unsuitable for Voice, Voice over IP and other latency-sensitive services due to the ground-satellite-ground propagation times ms round trip or more.

Additional power and larger dishes are also required to boost the signal to the satellite and receive the signal on the ground. Signals in geostationary systems also must pass through the entire atmosphere and suffer the greatest dissipation of all three orbital systems. Ground stations in the northern hemisphere point south to the equator to send and receive to satellites.

Ground stations in the southern hemisphere point north to communicate with the same satellites. Geostationary satellites do have one small limitation. Ground stations that are too far north or south at the poles cannot 'see' the geostationary satellite as the curve of the earth is between the ground station and the satellite.

Thus, satellites in other orbits must be used.

Satellite Orbit Types

Geostationary satellites are 'parked' in positions over the equator to maximize coverage over the inhabited portions of the earth. This area in space forms a belt and is referred to as the 'Clarke Belt' because it was noted science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that was the first to propose the idea.

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A satellite in this orbit flies over the earth from pole to pole. They are typically inserted at lower orbits. Many polar orbits are elliptical in nature, and most polar craft are in the MEO altitude. This orbit is most commonly used in surface mapping and observation satellites as they allow a satellite which orbits the earth to take advantage of the earth's rotation to cause the entire surface of the earth to pass below the satellite.

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Many of the pictures of the earth's surface in applications such as Google Earth come from satellites in these polar orbits. An elliptical orbit is an oval shaped orbit used to place the orbit close to earth in specific locations and to orbit at specific intervals. An elliptical orbit has two critical distances called apogee and perigee. Perigee is when an orbital object is closest to the earth. Apogee is when it is farthest away.

Elliptical orbit satellites cover the polar regions where the geostationary satellites cannot reach.


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The study of orbits and trajectories of satellites and satellite launch vehicles is the most fundamental topic of the subject of satellite technology. An understanding of the orbital dynamics would give a sound footing to address issues like types of orbit and their suitability for a given application, orbit stabilization, orbit correction and station keeping, launch requirements and typical launch trajectories.

This chapter focuses on all these issues and illustrates various concepts with the help of necessary mathematics and a large number of solved problems. The motion of natural and artificial satellites around Earth is governed by centripetal force and centrifugal force, which are explained in the chapter from Newton's laws and Kepler's laws.


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  • The horizontal velocity with which a satellite is injected into space by the launch vehicle with the intention of imparting a specific trajectory to the satellite has a direct bearing on the satellite trajectory. The full text of this article hosted at iucr.

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    Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Summary The study of orbits and trajectories of satellites and satellite launch vehicles is the most fundamental topic of the subject of satellite technology.