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This article is about artificial satellites. For natural satellites, also known as moons, see Natural satellite. For other uses, see Satellite (disambiguation).
NASA's Earth-observing fleet as of June 2012.
An animation depicting the orbits of GPS satellites in medium Earth orbit.
A full-size model of the Earth observation satellite ERS 2

In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an artificial object which has been intentionally placed into orbit. 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 40 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, Vesta, Eros, 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.

About 6,600 satellites have been launched. The latest estimates are that 3,600 remain in orbit.[1] Of those, about 1,000 are operational;[2][3] the rest have lived out their useful lives and are part of the space debris. Approximately 500 operational satellites are in low-Earth orbit, 50 are in medium-Earth orbit (at 20,000 km), the rest are in geostationary orbit (at 36,000 km).[4]

Satellites are propelled by rockets to their orbits. Usually the launch vehicle itself is a rocket lifting off from a launch pad on land. In a minority of cases satellites are launched at sea (from a submarine or a mobile maritime platform) or aboard a plane (see air launch to 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.


Early conceptions[edit]

"Newton's cannonball", presented as a "thought experiment" in A Treatise of the System of the World, was the first published mathematical study of the possibility of an artificial satellite.

The first fictional depiction of a satellite being launched into orbit is a short story by Edward Everett Hale, The Brick Moon. The story is serialized in The Atlantic Monthly, starting in 1869.[5][6] The idea surfaces again in Jules Verne's The Begum's Fortune (1879).

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

In 1903, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) published Exploring Space Using Jet Propulsion Devices (in Russian: Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами), which is the first academic treatise on the use of rocketry to launch spacecraft. He calculated the orbital speed required for a minimal orbit around the Earth at 8 km/s, and that a multi-stage rocket fuelled by liquid propellants could be used to achieve this. He proposed the use of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, though other combinations can be used.

In 1928, Slovenian Herman Potočnik (1892–1929) published his sole book, The Problem of Space Travel — The Rocket Motor (German: Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums — der Raketen-Motor), a plan for a breakthrough into space and a permanent human presence there. He conceived of a space station in detail and calculated its geostationary orbit. He described the use of orbiting spacecraft for detailed peaceful and military observation of the ground and described how the special conditions of space could be useful for scientific experiments. The book described geostationary satellites (first put forward by Tsiolkovsky) and discussed communication between them and the ground using radio, but fell short of the idea of using satellites for mass broadcasting and as telecommunications relays.

In a 1945 Wireless World article, the English science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008) described in detail the possible use of communications satellites for mass communications.[7] Clarke examined the logistics of satellite launch, possible orbits and other aspects of the creation of a network of world-circling satellites, pointing to the benefits of high-speed global communications. He also suggested that three geostationary satellites would provide coverage over the entire planet.

The US military studied the idea of what was referred to as the earth satellite vehicle when Secretary of Defense James Forrestal made a public announcement on December 29, 1948, that his office was coordinating that project between the various services.[8]

Artificial satellites[edit]

Sputnik 1: The first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.

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.[9]

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."[10] 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."[11]

In the context of activities planned for the International Geophysical Year (1957 - 58), the White House announced on July 29, 1955 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.[12]

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.[13]

Early satellites were constructed as "one-off" designs. With growth in geosynchronous (GEO) satellite communication, multiple satellites began to be built on single model platforms 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.

1U CubeSat ESTCube-1, developed mainly by the students from the University of Tartu, carries out a tether deployment experiment on the low Earth orbit.

Space Surveillance Network[edit]

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.[14] 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.[15]

Non-military satellite services[edit]

There are three basic categories of non-military satellite services:[16]

Fixed satellite services[edit]

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[edit]

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)[edit]

Scientific research satellites provide 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.


MILSTAR: A communication satellite
International Space Station as seen from Space

Orbit types[edit]

Main article: List of orbits
Various earth orbits to scale; cyan represents low earth orbit, yellow represents medium earth orbit, the black dashed line represents geosynchronous orbit, the green dash-dot line the orbit of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, and the red dotted line the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS).

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 2,456 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. Geocentric orbits may be further classified by their altitude, inclination and eccentricity.

The commonly used altitude classifications of geocentric orbit are Low Earth orbit (LEO), Medium Earth orbit (MEO) and High Earth orbit (HEO). Low Earth orbit is any orbit below 2,000 km. Medium Earth orbit is any orbit between 2,000 km-35,786 km. High Earth orbit is any orbit higher than 35,786 km.

Centric classifications[edit]

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[edit]

Orbital Altitudes of several significant satellites of earth.

Inclination classifications[edit]

Eccentricity classifications[edit]

Synchronous classifications[edit]

Special classifications[edit]

Pseudo-orbit classifications[edit]

Satellite subsystems[edit]

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.[16] Note that some novel architectural concepts such as Fractionated Spacecraft somewhat upset this taxonomy.

Spacecraft bus or service module[edit]

This bus module consist of the following subsystems:

The structural subsystem provides the mechanical base structure with adequate stiffness to withstand stress and vibrations experienced during launch, maintain structural integrity and stability while on station in orbit, and shields the satellite from extreme temperature changes and micro-meteorite damage.

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 subsystem consists of solar panels to convert solar energy into electrical power, regulation and distribution functions, and batteries that store power and supply the satellite when it passes into the Earth's shadow. Nuclear power sources (Radioisotope thermoelectric generator have also been used in several successful satellite programs including the Nimbus program (1964–1978).[20]

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 subsystem consists of sensors to measure vehicle orientation; control laws embedded in the flight software; and actuators (reaction wheels, thrusters) to apply the torques and forces needed to re-orient the vehicle to a desired attitude, keep the satellite in the correct orbital position and keep antennas positioning in the right directions.

Communication payload[edit]

The second major module is the communication payload, which is made up of transponders. A transponder is capable of :

End of life[edit]

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.[21]

Instead of being de-orbited, most satellites are either left in their current orbit or moved to a graveyard orbit.[22] As of 2002, the FCC requires all geostationary satellites to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life prior to launch.[23] In cases of uncontrolled de-orbiting, the major variable is the solar flux, and the minor variables the components and form factors of the satellite itself, and the gravitational perturbations generated by the Sun and the Moon (as well as those exercised by large mountain ranges, whether above or below sea level). The nominal breakup altitude due to aerodynamic forces and temperatures is 78 km, with a range between 72 and 84 km. Solar panels, however, are destroyed before any other component at altitudes between 90 and 95 km.[24]

Launch-capable countries[edit]

This list includes countries with an independent capability of states 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. The list include multi-national state organization ESA but does not include private consortiums.

First launch by country
OrderCountryDate of first launchRocketSatellite
1 Soviet Union4 October 1957Sputnik-PSSputnik 1
2 United States1 February 1958Juno IExplorer 1
3 France26 November 1965Diamant-AAstérix
4 Japan11 February 1970Lambda-4SŌsumi
5 China24 April 1970Long March 1Dong Fang Hong I
6 United Kingdom28 October 1971Black ArrowProspero
7 India18 July 1980SLVRohini D1
8 Israel19 September 1988ShavitOfeq 1
- [1] Russia21 January 1992Soyuz-UKosmos 2175
- [1] Ukraine13 July 1992Tsyklon-3Strela
9 Iran2 February 2009Safir-1Omid
10 North Korea12 December 2012Unha-3Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2

Attempted first launches[edit]

Other notes[edit]

Launch capable private entities[edit]

A few other private companies are capable of sub-orbital launches.

First satellites of countries[edit]

First satellites of countries including launched indigenously or by help of other[30]
CountryYear of first launchFirst satellitePayloads in orbit as of Jan 2013[31][needs update]
 Soviet Union
( Russia)
Sputnik 1
(Kosmos 2175)
 United States1958Explorer 11110
 United Kingdom1962Ariel 10030
 Canada1962Alouette 10034
 Italy1964San Marco 10022
 China1970Dong Fang Hong I0140
 Indonesia1976Palapa A10012
 Czechoslovakia1978Magion 10004
 Bulgaria1981Intercosmos Bulgaria 13000001
 Saudi Arabia1985Arabsat-1A0012
 Brazil1985Brasilsat A10013
 Mexico1985Morelos 10007
 Israel1988Ofeq 100011
 Luxembourg1988Astra 1A005
 South Korea1992Kitsat A0011
 Thailand1993Thaicom 10007
 Turkey1994Turksat 1B0008
 Norway1997Thor 20003
 Philippines1997Mabuhay 10002
 Egypt1998Nilesat 1010004
 South Africa1999SUNSAT0002
 United Arab Emirates2000Thuraya 10006
 Algeria2002Alsat 10001
 Greece2003Hellas Sat 20002
 Cyprus2003Hellas Sat 20002
 Nigeria2003Nigeriasat 10004
 Kazakhstan2006KazSat 10002
 Colombia2007Libertad 10001
 Mauritius2007Rascom-QAF 10002
 Hungary2012MaSat-1[37]0001[citation needed]
 Belarus2012BKA (BelKA-2)[39]N/A
 North Korea2012Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 21
 Ecuador2013NEE-01 Pegaso1
 Lithuania2014LituanicaSAT-1 and LitSat-12
  orbital launch and satellite operation
  satellite operation, launched by foreign supplier
  satellite in development
  orbital launch project at advanced stage or indigenous ballistic missiles deployed

While Canada was the third country to build a satellite which was launched into space,[44] it was launched aboard a U.S. rocket from a U.S. spaceport. The same goes for Australia, who launched on board a donated Redstone rocket. The first Italian-launched was San Marco 1, launched on 15 December 1964 on a U.S. Scout rocket from Wallops Island (VA, USA) with an Italian Launch Team trained by NASA.[45] Australia's launch project (WRESAT) involved a donated U.S. missile and U. S. support staff as well as a joint launch facility with the United Kingdom.[46]

Attempted first satellite[edit]

†-note: Both Chile and Belarus used Russian companies as principal contractors to build their satellites, they used Russian-Ukrainian manufactured rockets and launched either from Russia or Kazakhstan.

Planned first satellites[edit]

Attacks on satellites[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Anti-satellite weapon.

In recent times[timeframe?], satellites have been hacked by militant organizations to broadcast propaganda and to pilfer classified information from military communication networks.[74][75]

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.[76] In 2007 the Chinese military shot down an aging weather satellite,[76] followed by the US Navy shooting down a defunct spy satellite in February 2008.[77]


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,[78][79] but satellite phone and television signals have also been subjected to jamming.[80][81]

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.[citation needed]

Satellite services[edit]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]