Categories: Guide to Space

How Satellites Work

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, known as Sputnik. This changed the course of world history and led the United States, their chief rival in the Space Race, to mount a massive effort of its own to put manned craft in orbit and land a man on the moon. Since then, the presence of satellites in our atmosphere has become commonplace, which has muted the sense of awe and wonder involved. However, for many, especially students studying in engineering and aerospace programs, the question of How Satellites Work is still one of vital importance.

Satellite perform a wide array of functions. Some are observational, such as the Hubble Space Telescope – providing scientists with images of distant stars, nebulas, galaxies, and other deep space phenomena. Others are dedicated to scientific research, particularly the behavior of organisms in low-gravity environments. Then there are communications satellites which relay telecommunications signals back and forth across the globe. GPS satellites offer navigational aid and tracking aides to people looking to transport goods or navigate their way across land and oceans. And military satellites are used to observe and monitor enemy installations and formations on the ground while also helping the airforce and navy guide their ordinance to enemy targets.

Satellites are deployed by attaching them to rockets which then ferry them into orbit around the planet. Once deployed, they are typically powered by rechargeable batteries which are recharged through solar panels. Other satellites have internal fuel cells that convert chemical energy to electrical energy, while a few rely on nuclear power. Small thrusters provide attitude, altitude, and propulsion control to modify and stabilize the satellite’s position in space.

When it comes to classifying the orbit of a satellite, scientists use a varying list to describe the particular nature of their orbits. For example, Centric classifications refer to the object which the satellite orbits (i.e. planet Earth, the Moon, etc). Altitude classifications determine how far the satellite is from Earth, whether it is in low, medium or high orbit. Inclination refers to whether the satellite is in orbit around the equatorial plane, the polar regions, or the polar-sun orbit that passes the equator at the same local time on every pass so as to stay in the light. Eccentricity classifications describe whether the orbit is circular or elliptical, while Synchronous classifications describe whether or not the satellite’s rotation matches the rotational period of the object (i.e. a standard day).

Depending on the nature of their purpose, satellites also carry a wide range of components inside their housing. This can include radio equipment, storage containers, camera equipment, and even weaponry. In addition, satellites typically have an on-board computer to send and receive information from their controllers on the ground, as well as compute their positions and calculate course corrections.

We have written many articles about satellites for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the satellites in space, and here’s an article about exploring satellites with Google Earth.

If you’d like more info on satellites, check out these articles:
National Geographics article about Orbital Objects
Satellites and Space Weather

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.


Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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