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What is a Satellite?

International Space Station
The International Space Station is the largest satellite in orbit. This file photo of the station was taken in May 2010 by NASA space shuttle astronauts.
Credit: NASA

A satellite is an object in space that orbits or circles around a bigger object. There are two kinds of satellites: natural (such as the moon orbiting the Earth) or artificial (such as the International Space Station orbiting the Earth).

There are dozens upon dozens of natural satellites in the solar system, with almost every planet having at least one moon. Saturn, for example, has at least 53 natural satellites, and one artificial one — the Cassini spacecraft, which is exploring the ringed planet and its moons.

Artificial satellites, however, did not become a reality until the mid-20th century. The first artificial satellite was Sputnik, a Russian beach-ball-size space probe that lifted off on Oct. 4, 1957. That act shocked much of the western world, as it was believed the Soviets did not have the capability to send satellites into space.

explorer 1
Explorer 1 was the first U.S. satellite and the first satellite to carry scientific instruments.
Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

A brief history of satellites

Following that feat, on Nov. 3, 1957 the Soviets launched an even more massive satellite — Sputnik 2 — which carried a dog, Laika. The United States made several unsuccessful attempts to send its own satellites into space before succeeding with Explorer 1 on Jan. 31, 1958. The satellite was only 2 percent the mass of Sputnik 2, however, at 30 pounds (13 kg).

The Sputniks and Explorer 1 became the opening shots in a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted until at least the late 1960s. The focus on satellites began to give way to people as both countries sent humans into space in 1961. Later in the decade, however, the aims of both countries began to split. While the United States went on to land people on the moon and create the space shuttle, the Soviet Union constructed the world's first space station, Salyut 1, which launched in 1971. (Other stations followed, such as the United States' Skylab and the Soviet Union's Mir.)

Other countries began to send their own satellites into space as the benefits rippled through society. Weather satellites were able to improve the forecast, even for remote areas. Land-watching satellites such as the Landsat series tracked changes in forests, water and other parts of Earth's surface over time. Telecommunications satellites made long-distance telephone calls and eventually, live television broadcasts from across the world a normal part of life. [Image Gallery: Earth Pictures from Space: Landsat Satellite Legacy]

With the miniaturization of computers and other hardware, it's now possible to send up much smaller satellites that can do science, telecommunications or other functions in orbit. It's common now for companies and universities to create "CubeSats", or cube-shaped satellites that frequently populate low-Earth orbit. These can be lofted on a rocket along with a bigger payload, or sent from a mobile launcher on the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is the biggest satellite in orbit, and took over a decade to construct. Piece by piece, 15 nations contributed financial and physical infrastructure to the orbiting complex, which was put together between 1998 and 2011. Program officials expect the ISS to keep running until at least 2024.

Parts of a satellite

Every usable satellite — whether it's a human or robotic one — has four main parts to it: a power system (which could be solar or nuclear, for example), a way to control its attitude, an antenna to transmit and receive information, and a payload to collect information (such as a camera or particle detector).

As will be seen below, however, not all artificial satellites are necessarily workable ones. Even a screw or a bit of paint is considered an "artificial" satellite, even though these are missing these parts.

What keeps a satellite from falling to Earth?

A satellite is best understood as a projectile, or an object that has only one force acting on it — gravity. Technically speaking, anything that crosses the Karman Line at an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) is considered in space. However, a satellite needs to be going fast — at least 8 km (5 miles) a second — to stop from falling back down to Earth immediately.

If a satellite is traveling fast enough, it will perpetually "fall" toward Earth, but the Earth's curvature means that the satellite will fall around our planet instead of crashing back on the surface. Satellites that travel closer to Earth are at risk of falling because the drag of atmospheric molecules will slow the satellites down. Those that orbit farther away from Earth have fewer molecules to contend with.

There are several accepted "zones" of orbits around the Earth. One is called low-Earth-orbit, which extends from about 160 to 2,000 km (about 100 to 1,250 miles). This is the zone where the ISS orbits and where the space shuttle used to do its work. In fact, all human missions except for the Apollo flights to the moon took place in this zone. Most satellites also work in this zone.

Geostationary orbit is the best spot for communications satellites to use, however. This is a zone above Earth's equator at an altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi). At this altitude, the rate of "fall" around the Earth is about the same as Earth's rotation. (From the ground, the satellite would appear to be still.) This allows a satellite to perpetually keep a connection with a fixed antenna on the ground, allowing for reliable communications.

While some satellites are best used around the equator, others are better suited to more polar orbits — those that circle the Earth so that the north and south poles appear underneath them. Examples of polar-orbiting satellites include weather satellites and reconnaissance satellites.

CubeSats Deployed From the International Space Station
Three small CubeSats float above the Earth after deployment from the International Space Station. Astronaut Rick Mastracchio tweeted the photo from the station on Nov. 19, 2013.
Credit: Rick Mastracchio ‏(via Twitter as @AstroRM)

What stops a satellite from crashing into another satellite?

There are an estimated half-million artificial objects in Earth orbit today, ranging in size from paint flecks up to full-fledged satellites — each traveling at speeds of thousands of miles an hour. Only a fraction of these satellites are useable, meaning that there is a lot of "space junk" floating around out there. With every thing that is lobbed into orbit, the chance of a collision increases.

Space agencies have to consider orbital trajectories carefully when launching something into space. Agencies such as the United States Space Surveillance Network keep an eye on orbital debris from the ground, and alert NASA and other entities if an errant piece is in danger of hitting something vital. This means that from time to time, the ISS needs to perform evasive maneuvers to get out of the way.

Collisions still occur, however. One of the biggest culprits of space debris these days is the leftovers of a 2007 anti-satellite test performed by the Chinese, which generated debris that destroyed a Russian satellite in 2013. Also that year, the Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 satellites smashed into each other, generating a cloud of debris.

NASA, the European Space Agency and many other entities are considering measures to reduce the amount of orbital debris. Some suggest bringing down dead satellites in some way, perhaps using a net or air bursts to disturb the debris from its orbit and bring it closer to Earth. Others are thinking about refueling dead satellites for reuse, a technology that has been demonstrated robotically on the ISS.

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