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#29. Spacecraft
#29a. Satellite looking up
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(29d) Satellites with Commercial Missions

This groups includes about 200 communication satellites ("comsats") scattered in synchronous orbits above the Earth's equator. At a distance of 6. 6 Earth radii (42,000 km or 26,000 miles), these satellite make one orbit per day, (sidereal day of 23 h 56 min--see here) and therefore as the Earth turns, they always stay above the same ground station. Comsats have become essential to the relaying of television broadcasts, long distance telephone connections and computer communications: if you are receiving this from the world-wide web (especially if you are outside the US) this document might well have been routed to you through one of them.

NASA maintains several communication satellites as data links to other satellites, an arrangement found more economical than the use of tracking stations on the ground. In addition, networks of low-altitude communication satellites (e.g. "Iridium", a system of 66 spacecraft, plus spares) are being deployed for use by cellular telephones.

Some beneficial satellites were already listed under different classifications: weather satellites, like those of the GOES series, and those which scan the Sun and the "solar wind" for activity affecting "space weather" inside the magnetosphere.

Still another application is the 24-satellite network of the "Global Positioning System" (GPS), in circular orbits at distances of about 4.1 Earth radii (26,000 km or 16,000 miles). GPS satellites continually broadcast their precise locations, and these can be read by small portable receivers, relatively inexpensive. Using a built-in computer, these receivers then derive their own precise position on the ground, within 10-50 meters. Russia operates its own system, GLONASS, and European countries are planning a third one.

Originally developed by the US Department of Defense (whose users derive from them even more precise positions), the GPS satellites are widely used by the public--by ships at sea, airplanes, hikers in the wilderness, even drivers trying to navigate large cities.

Postscript, April 2003

    GPS has played an enormous role in the second Gulf War, precisely guiding missiles and bombs to specific targets in Iraq. In the weekly magazine of the aerospace industry "Space News International," issue of 31 March 2003, Jeremy Singer and Simon Saradzhyan wrote that Iraq had anticipated this and set up transmitters to jam GPS signals and interfere with them. They reported that 6 such transmitters were located and destroyed , the last of them by a GPS-guided bomb.

    For a detailed article about this technology, see "Satellite-Guided Munitions" by Michael Puttré, p. 66-73 in "Scientific American," issue of February 2003.

Next Satellite Class: #29e Missions to Planets and to Distant Space

Next Regular Stop: #30 Far-out Pathways to Space: Great Guns?

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   stargaze("at" symbol) .

Last updated: 8 April 2003