Artificial Satellites

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An artificial satellite is a manufactured object that continuously orbits Earth or some other body in space. Most artificial satellites orbit Earth. Satellites are used for a large number of purposes. Common types include military (spy) and civilian Earth observation satellites, communication satellites, navigation satellites, weather satellites, and research satellites.

GOES-N Spacecraft
GOES-N spacecraft in orbit.

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. Artificial satellites also have orbited the moon, the sun, asteroids, and the planets Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. Such satellites mainly gather information about the bodies they orbit. Artificial satellites differ from natural satellites, natural objects that orbit a planet. Earth's moon is a natural satellite.

Space shuttles carry some satellites into space, but most satellites are launched by rockets that fall into the ocean after their fuel is spent. Many satellites require minor adjustments of their orbit before they begin to perform their function. Built-in rockets called thrusters make these adjustments. Once a satellite is placed into a stable orbit, it can remain there for a long time without further adjustment.

Most satellites operate are directed from a control center on Earth. Computers and human operators at the control center monitor the satellite's position, send instructions to its computers, and retrieve information that the satellite has gathered. The control center communicates with the satellite by radio. Ground stations within the satellite's range send and receive the radio signals.

International Space Station
International Space Station

A satellite remains in orbit until its velocity decreases and gravitational force pulls it down into a relatively dense part of the atmosphere. A satellite slows down due to occasional impact with air molecules in the upper atmosphere and the gentle pressure of the sun's energy. When the gravitational force pulls the satellite down far enough into the atmosphere, the satellite rapidly compresses the air in front of it. This air becomes so hot that most or all of the satellite burns up.

The largest artificial satellite currently orbiting the Earth is the International Space Station.

Types of Artificial Satellites

Artificial satellites are classified according to their mission. There are six main types of artificial satellites: (1) scientific research, (2) weather, (3) communications, (4) navigation, (5) Earth observing, and (6) military. Scientific research satellites gather data for scientific analysis. These satellites are usually designed to perform one of three kinds of missions. (1) Some gather information about the composition and effects of the space near Earth. They may be placed in any of various orbits,depending on the type of measurements they are to make. (2) Other satellites record changes in Earth and its atmosphere. Many of them travel in sun-synchronous, polar orbits. (3) Still others observe planets, stars, and other distant objects. Most of these satellites operate in low altitude orbits. Scientific research satellites also orbit other planets, the moon, and the sun.

Spitzer Space Telescope
Spitzer Space Telescope

Weather satellites help scientists study weather patterns and forecast the weather. Weather satellites observe the atmospheric conditions over large areas. Some weather satellites travel in a sun-synchronous, polar orbit, from which they make close, detailed observations of weather over the entire Earth. Their instruments measure cloud cover, temperature, air pressure, precipitation, and the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Other weather satellites are placed in high altitude, geosynchronous orbits. From these orbits, they can always observe weather activity over nearly half the surface of Earth at the same time. These satellites photograph changing cloud formations. They also produce infrared images, which show the amount of heat coming from Earth and the clouds.

Communications satellites serve as relay stations, receiving radio signals from one location and transmitting them to another. A communications satellite can relay several television programs or many thousands of telephone calls at once. Communications satellites are usually put in a high altitude, geosynchronous orbit over a ground station. A ground station has a large dish antenna for transmitting and receiving radio signals. Sometimes, a group of low orbit communications satellites arranged in a network, called a constellation, work together by relaying information to each other and to users on the ground. Countries and commercial organizations, such as television broadcasters and telephone companies, use these satellites continuously.

Mars Telecommunications Orbiter
Mars Telecommunications Orbiter

Navigation satellites enable operators of aircraft, ships, and land vehicles anywhere on Earth to determine their locations with great accuracy. Hikers and other people on foot can also use the satellites for this purpose. The satellites send out radio signals that are picked up by a computerized receiver carried on a vehicle or held in the hand.

Earth observing satellites are used to map and monitor our planet's resources and ever-changing chemical life cycles. They follow sun-synchronous, polar orbits. Under constant, consistent illumination from the sun, they take pictures in different colors of visible light and non-visible radiation. Computers on Earth combine and analyze the pictures. Scientists use Earth observing satellites to locate mineral deposits, to determine the location and size of freshwater supplies, to identify sources of pollution and study its effects, and to detect the spread of disease in crops and forests.

Military satellites include weather, communications, navigation, and Earth observing satellites used for military purposes. Some military satellites, often called spy satellites, can detect the launch of missiles, the course of ships at sea, and the movement of military equipment on the ground.