In 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 Earth's Moon.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Since then, about 6,600 satellites from more than 40 countries have been launched. According to a 2013 estimate, 3,600 remained in orbit. Of those, about 1,000 were operational; while the rest have lived out their useful lives and became space debris. Approximately 500 operational satellites are in low-Earth orbit, 50 are in medium-Earth orbit (at 20,000 km), and the rest are in geostationary orbit (at 36,000 km). A few large satellites have been launched in parts and assembled in orbit. Over a dozen space probes have been placed into orbit around other bodies and become artificial satellites to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a few asteroids, and the Sun.
Satellites are used for many purposes. Common types include military and civilian Earth observation satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, weather satellites, and space telescopes. 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.
A launch vehicle is a rocket that throws a satellite into orbit. Usually it lifts off from a launch pad on land. Some are launched at sea from a submarine or a mobile maritime platform, or aboard a plane (see air launch to orbit).
"Newton's cannonball", presented as a "thought experiment" in A Treatise of the System of the World, by Isaac Newton was the first published mathematical study of the possibility of an artificial satellite.
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, and that a multi-stage rocket fuelled by liquid propellants could achieve this.
In 1928, 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). He described the use of orbiting spacecraft for observation of the ground and described how the special conditions of space could be useful for scientific experiments.
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. He 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.
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.
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." 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 report, but considered the satellite to be a tool for science, politics, and propaganda, rather than a potential military weapon. In 1954, the Secretary of Defense stated, "I know of no American satellite program." In February 1954 Project RAND released "Scientific Uses for a Satellite Vehicle," written by R.R. Carhart. This expanded on potential scientific uses for satellite vehicles and was followed in June 1955 with "The Scientific Use of an Artificial Satellite," by H.K. Kallmann and W.W. Kellogg.
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.
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.
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.
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 Soviet Union 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. 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.
There are three basic categories of non-military satellite services:
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 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 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.
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 1,459 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 and 35,786 km. High Earth orbit is any orbit higher than 35,786 km.
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.
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. Note that some novel architectural concepts such as Fractionated spacecraft somewhat upset this taxonomy.
The bus module consists 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 (aka Command and Data Handling, C&DH) 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).
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.
The second major module is the communication payload, which is made up of transponders. A transponder is capable of :
When satellites reach the end of their mission this occurs in 3 or 4 years, 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.
Instead of being de-orbited, most satellites are either left in their current orbit or moved to a graveyard orbit. 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. 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.
This list includes countries with an independent capability 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 includes the European Space Agency, a multi-national state organization, but does not include private consortiums.
|Order||Country||Date of first launch||Rocket||Satellite|
|1||Soviet Union||4 October 1957||Sputnik-PS||Sputnik 1|
|2||United States||1 February 1958||Juno I||Explorer 1|
|3||France||26 November 1965||Diamant-A||Astérix|
|4||Japan||11 February 1970||Lambda-4S||Ōsumi|
|5||China||24 April 1970||Long March 1||Dong Fang Hong I|
|6||United Kingdom||28 October 1971||Black Arrow||Prospero|
|7||India||18 July 1980||SLV||Rohini D1|
|8||Israel||19 September 1988||Shavit||Ofeq 1|
|-||Russia||21 January 1992||Soyuz-U||Kosmos 2175|
|-||Ukraine||13 July 1992||Tsyklon-3||Strela|
|9||Iran||2 February 2009||Safir-1||Omid|
|10||North Korea||12 December 2012||Unha-3||Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2|
|Country||Year of first launch||First satellite||Payloads in orbit as of April 2016|
| Soviet Union
|United States||1958||Explorer 1||1252|
|United Kingdom||1962||Ariel 1||40|
|Italy||1964||San Marco 1||22|
|China||1970||Dong Fang Hong I||210|
|Bulgaria||1981||Intercosmos Bulgaria 1300||1|
|Hong Kong||1990||AsiaSat 1||9|
|South Korea||1992||Kitsat A||11|
|Czech Republic||1995||Magion 4||5|
|United Arab Emirates||2000||Thuraya 1||6|
|Tonga||2002||Esiafi 1 (former Comstar D4)||1|
|Greece||2003||Hellas Sat 2||2|
|Cyprus||2003||Hellas Sat 2||2|
|Isle of Man||2011||ViaSat-1||1|
|North Korea||2012||Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2||1|
|Bermuda||2013||Bermudasat 1 (former EchoStar VI)||1|
|Jersey||2013||O3b-1, -2, -3, -4||4|
|Lithuania||2014||LituanicaSAT-1 and LitSat-1||2|
|Belgium||2014||QB50P1 and QB50P2||2|
While Canada was the third country to build a satellite which was launched into space, it was launched aboard an American rocket from an American spaceport. The same goes for Australia, who launched first satellite involved a donated U.S. Redstone rocket and American support staff as well as a joint launch facility with the United Kingdom. The first Italian satellite San Marco 1 launched on 15 December 1964 on a U.S. Scout rocket from Wallops Island (Virginia, United States) with an Italian launch team trained by NASA. By similar occasions, almost all further first national satellites was launched by foreign rockets.
†-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.
In recent times, satellites have been hacked by militant organizations to broadcast propaganda and to pilfer classified information from military communication networks.
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. In 2007 the Chinese military shot down an aging weather satellite, followed by the US Navy shooting down a defunct spy satellite in February 2008.
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, but satellite phone and television signals have also been subjected to jamming.
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.
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