A low Earth orbit (LEO) typically is a circular orbit about 200 kilometres (120 mi) above the earth's surface and, correspondingly, a period (time to revolve around the earth) of about 90 minutes. Because of their low altitude, these satellites are only visible from within a radius of roughly 1000 kilometers from the sub-satellite point. In addition, satellites in low earth orbit change their position relative to the ground position quickly. So even for local applications, a large number of satellites are needed if the mission requires uninterrupted connectivity.
Low-Earth-orbiting satellites are less expensive to launch into orbit than geostationary satellites and, due to proximity to the ground, do not require as high signal strength (Recall that signal strength falls off as the square of the distance from the source, so the effect is dramatic). Thus there is a trade off between the number of satellites and their cost. In addition, there are important differences in the onboard and ground equipment needed to support the two types of missions.
A group of satellites working in concert is known as a satellite constellation. Two such constellations, intended to provide satellite phone services, primarily to remote areas, are the Iridium and Globalstar systems. The Iridium system has 66 satellites. Another LEO satellite constellation known as Teledesic, with backing from Microsoft entrepreneur Paul Allen, was to have over 840 satellites. This was later scaled back to 288 and ultimately ended up only launching one test satellite.
It is also possible to offer discontinuous coverage using a low-Earth-orbit satellite capable of storing data received while passing over one part of Earth and transmitting it later while passing over another part. This will be the case with the CASCADE system of Canada's CASSIOPE communications satellite. Another system using this store and forward method is Orbcomm.
Geostationary satellites must operate above the equator and will therefore appear lower on the horizon as the receiver gets the farther from the equator. This will cause problems for extreme northerly latitudes, affecting connectivity and causing multipath (interference caused by signals reflecting off the ground and into the ground antenna). For areas close to the North (and South) Pole, a geostationary satellite may appear below the horizon. Therefore Molniya orbit satellite have been launched, mainly in Russia, to alleviate this problem. The first satellite of the Molniya series was launched on April 23, 1965 and was used for experimental transmission of TV signal from a Moscow uplink station to downlink stations located in Siberia and the Russian Far East, in Norilsk, Khabarovsk, Magadan and Vladivostok. In November 1967 Soviet engineers created a unique system of national TV network of satellite television, called Orbita, that was based on Molniya satellites.
Molniya orbits can be an appealing alternative in such cases. The Molniya orbit is highly inclined, guaranteeing good elevation over selected positions during the northern portion of the orbit. (Elevation is the extent of the satellite's position above the horizon. Thus, a satellite at the horizon has zero elevation and a satellite directly overhead has elevation of 90 degrees).
The Molniya orbit is designed so that the satellite spends the great majority of its time over the far northern latitudes, during which its ground footprint moves only slightly. Its period is one half day, so that the satellite is available for operation over the targeted region for six to nine hours every second revolution. In this way a constellation of three Molniya satellites (plus in-orbit spares) can provide uninterrupted coverage.
Communications Satellites are usually composed of the following subsystems:
The bandwidth available from a satellite depends upon the number of transponders provided by the satellite. Each service (TV, Voice, Internet, radio) requires a different amount of bandwidth for transmission. This is typically call known as link budgeting and a network simulator can be used to arrive at the exact value.
The first and historically most important application for communication satellites was in intercontinental long distance telephony. The fixed Public Switched Telephone Network relays telephone calls from land line telephones to an earth station, where they are then transmitted to a geostationary satellite. The downlink follows an analogous path. Improvements in submarine communications cables, through the use of fiber-optics, caused some decline in the use of satellites for fixed telephony in the late 20th century, but they still serve remote islands such as Ascension Island, Saint Helena, Diego Garcia, and Easter Island, where no submarine cables are in service. There are also regions of some continents and countries where landline telecommunications are rare to nonexistent, for example large regions of South America, Africa, Canada, China, Russia, and Australia. Satellite communications also provide connection to the edges of Antarctica and Greenland.
Satellite phones connect directly to a constellation of either geostationary or low-earth-orbit satellites. Calls are then forwarded to a satellite teleport connected to the Public Switched Telephone Network.
As television became the main market, its demand for simultaneous delivery of relatively few signals of large bandwidth to many receivers being a more precise match for the capabilities of geosynchronous comsats. Two satellite types are used for North American television and radio: Direct broadcast satellite (DBS), and Fixed Service Satellite (FSS)
The definitions of FSS and DBS satellites outside of North America, especially in Europe, are a bit more ambiguous. Most satellites used for direct-to-home television in Europe have the same high power output as DBS-class satellites in North America, but use the same linear polarization as FSS-class satellites. Examples of these are the Astra, Eutelsat, and Hotbird spacecraft in orbit over the European continent. Because of this, the terms FSS and DBS are more so used throughout the North American continent, and are uncommon in Europe.
Fixed Service Satellites use the C band, and the lower portions of the Ku bands. They are normally used for broadcast feeds to and from television networks and local affiliate stations (such as program feeds for network and syndicated programming, live shots, and backhauls), as well as being used for distance learning by schools and universities, business television (BTV), Videoconferencing, and general commercial telecommunications. FSS satellites are also used to distribute national cable channels to cable television headends.
Free-to-air satellite TV channels are also usually distributed on FSS satellites in the Ku band. The Intelsat Americas 5, Galaxy 10R and AMC 3 satellites over North America provide a quite large amount of FTA channels on their Ku band transponders.
The American Dish Network DBS service has also recently utilized FSS technology as well for their programming packages requiring their SuperDish antenna, due to Dish Network needing more capacity to carry local television stations per the FCC's "must-carry" regulations, and for more bandwidth to carry HDTV channels.
A direct broadcast satellite is a communications satellite that transmits to small DBS satellite dishes (usually 18 to 24 inches or 45 to 60 cm in diameter). Direct broadcast satellites generally operate in the upper portion of the microwave Ku band. DBS technology is used for DTH-oriented (Direct-To-Home) satellite TV services, such as DirecTV and DISH Network in the United States, Bell TV and Shaw Direct in Canada, Freesat and Sky Digital in the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and New Zealand and DSTV in South Africa.
Operating at lower frequency and lower power than DBS, FSS satellites require a much larger dish for reception (3 to 8 feet (1 to 2.5m) in diameter for Ku band, and 12 feet (3.6m) or larger for C band). They use linear polarization for each of the transponders' RF input and output (as opposed to circular polarization used by DBS satellites), but this is a minor technical difference that users do not notice. FSS satellite technology was also originally used for DTH satellite TV from the late 1970s to the early 1990s in the United States in the form of TVRO (TeleVision Receive Only) receivers and dishes. It was also used in its Ku band form for the now-defunct Primestar satellite TV service.
Some satellites have been launched that have transponders in the Ka band, such as DirecTV's SPACEWAY-1 satellite, and Anik F2. NASA as well has launched experimental satellites using the Ka band recently.
Some manufacturers have also introduced special antennas for mobile reception of DBS television. Using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology as a reference, these antennas automatically re-aim to the satellite no matter where or how the vehicle (on which the antenna is mounted) is situated. These mobile satellite antennas are popular with some recreational vehicle owners. Such mobile DBS antennas are also used by JetBlue Airways for DirecTV (supplied by LiveTV, a subsidiary of JetBlue), which passengers can view on-board on LCD screens mounted in the seats.
Realization and demonstration, on October 29, 2001, of the first digital cinema transmission by satellite in Europe of a feature film by Bernard Pauchon, Alain Lorentz, Raymond Melwig, Philippe Binant.
Satellite radio offers audio services in some countries, notably the United States. Mobile services allow listeners to roam a continent, listening to the same audio programming anywhere.
A satellite radio or subscription radio (SR) is a digital radio signal that is broadcast by a communications satellite, which covers a much wider geographical range than terrestrial radio signals.
Satellite radio offers a meaningful alternative to ground-based radio services in some countries, notably the United States. Mobile services, such as SiriusXM, and Worldspace, allow listeners to roam across an entire continent, listening to the same audio programming anywhere they go. Other services, such as Music Choice or Muzak's satellite-delivered content, require a fixed-location receiver and a dish antenna. In all cases, the antenna must have a clear view to the satellites. In areas where tall buildings, bridges, or even parking garages obscure the signal, repeaters can be placed to make the signal available to listeners.
Initially available for broadcast to stationary TV receivers, by 2004 popular mobile direct broadcast applications made their appearance with the arrival of two satellite radio systems in the United States: Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Holdings. Later they merged to become the conglomerate SiriusXM.
Radio services are usually provided by commercial ventures and are subscription-based. The various services are proprietary signals, requiring specialized hardware for decoding and playback. Providers usually carry a variety of news, weather, sports, and music channels, with the music channels generally being commercial-free.
In areas with a relatively high population density, it is easier and less expensive to reach the bulk of the population with terrestrial broadcasts. Thus in the UK and some other countries, the contemporary evolution of radio services is focused on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) services or HD Radio, rather than satellite radio.
Amateur radio operators have access to the amateur radio satellites that have been designed specifically to carry amateur radio traffic. Most such satellites operate as spaceborne repeaters, and are generally accessed by amateurs equipped with UHF or VHF radio equipment and highly directional antennas such as Yagis or dish antennas. Due to launch costs, most current amateur satellites are launched into fairly low Earth orbits, and are designed to deal with only a limited number of brief contacts at any given time. Some satellites also provide data-forwarding services using the X.25 or similar protocols.
After the 1990s, satellite communication technology has been used as a means to connect to the Internet via broadband data connections. This can be very useful for users who are located in remote areas, and cannot access a broadband connection, or require high availability of services.
Communications satellites are used for military communications applications, such as Global Command and Control Systems. Examples of military systems that use communication satellites are the MILSTAR, the DSCS, and the FLTSATCOM of the United States, NATO satellites, United Kingdom satellites (for instance Skynet), and satellites of the former Soviet Union. Many military satellites operate in the X-band, and some also use UHF radio links, while MILSTAR also utilizes Ka band.