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What do youu know aabout sateellites?

Whaat do we meaan by space??

a a high of
Spacce is usually regarded to be the regionn above earthhs surface at
100 km or higheer. If you ownn a piece of land,
you onnly own the reegion above
ntil a height oof 100 km, above
that noo one owns thhat region. Soo, if you
it un
buildd a building that is more than 100 km
m high, you risk
r having itt hit by a
satelllite or someething else.

Space actuaally space of nothing, a vooid, an emptty place?

Is S

The direct answeer is no, at leeast not at rellatively low heights of 1000 km or 2000
mosphere spread out untiil a height off
km. Believe it orr not, the layyers of the atm
mosphere is so
s thin at aboout a height of
o around
seveeral 1000s off km. The atm
150 km or so to the point thaat an object can
c travel thrrough it with little air
w air molecuules spread out
o here and
resisstance, but never the lesss there are few
theree at heights up
u to aroundd 2000 km orr so, you still find a very thin
Gennerally, the attmosphere iss divided intoo the followinng 5 main laayers based
on teemperature aand contents:
(Ref: http://een.wikipediaa.org/wiki/Attmosphere_oof_Earth) :
o between
The tropospheree starts at Earrths surface and extends to a height of
ng on latitudde. The troposphere contaains around
arouund 10 to 20 km dependin
% of the masss of the atmoosphere. All weather
existts in this layeer.
The stratospheree extends from the top off the troposphhere to aboutt 50 km. Thiss
is where
the Ozoone layer exiists. The presssure at the toop of the straatosphere is
arouund 1/1000 thhat at sea levvel.
The mesospheree extends from
m the top of the stratosphhere to arounnd 85 km. It
is thhe layer wherre most meteeors burn up upon entry too the Earth.
Thiss extends from the top off the Mesosphhere to a heigght of aroundd 500 to 7000 km. This layer is so
thin that a gas molecule
traveels on averagge for a distaance of severral kilometers before it coollides

with other molecules. This is the layer in which many man-made objects orbit collides with other
molecules. This is the layer in which many man-made objects orbit (US space shuttle, the
International Space Station (orbits at heights from 320 to 380 km), Hubble Space Telescope (orbit
around 595 km), and some low-orbit satellites orbit which may orbit at heights as low as 160 km.
To understand the effect of atmospheric drag, the space stations orbit drops by approximately 2
km/m due to atmospheric drag.

This is the outermost layer of the Earths atmosphere, which extends from the top of the
thermosphere until almost no gas molecules exist which occurs at a rough height of 1000 to
2000 km. This layer is mainly composed of the light gasses hydrogen and helium. This layer is so
thin that gas particles may travel for hundreds of kilometers without colliding with each other.

Based on the above atmosphere layers, what would be the lowest practical orbit for a satellite?

The lowest satellite orbit is usually considered to be around 160 km above Earths
surface. At this orbit, satellites experience significant atmospheric drag, which would
result in slowing them down and eventually de-orbiting them and finally getting them
burned in the thick atmosphere at heights of around 100 km if their height is not raised.

What was the first man-made object that went into space?
The first man-made object that went into space was a German V2 rocket, which was launched on
3 October 1942 and reached a height of around 100 km. However, going into space is not the
same as going into an orbit around Earth.

What was the first man-made object to get into an orbit around earth, and when was it launched?
It was the Soviet Unions satellite Sputnik
1, which was launched in 4 October 1957
(See photo of a replica of it to the right).
This was a very simple battery-operated
satellite that transmitted two beeping signals
at 20 and 40 MHz. Because its only source
of power was an onboard battery, it worked
for 22 days only. It re-entered Earths
atmosphere and burned 3 months later on 4
January 1958.
Its spherical part had a diameter of 58.5 cm
and weighed 83.6 kg. Its 4 tentacles formed
two antennas with almost a spherical
radiation pattern allowing it to transmit almost equal power in all direction around it making the
position of the satellite with respect to the observer irrelevant.
The initial orbit of Sputnik 1 was an elliptical orbit with a minimum height of 223 km above
Earths surface and maximum height of 950 km above Earths surface and an initial orbital period
of 96.2 minutes, and a maximum velocity of 7,780 m/s. By the time Sputnik 1 burned in the
atmosphere, it made 1440 orbits and travelled 60 million km.
(for more details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1)

When was the concept of satellites coined?

The concept of satellites was coined by Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary Society
who sent a letter to the editor titled Peacetime Uses for V2 which was published in the 1945
February issue of Wireless World, in which he stated
I would like to close by mentioning a possibility of the more remote future--perhaps half a
century ahead. An artificial satellite at the correct distance from the earth would make one
revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be

within optical range of nearly half the earth's surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart
in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.
The required tools to implement Clarkes vision was not available at the time.
What is the furthest man-made object from earth?

It is the space craft called Voyager 1, which

was launched by the US in 5 September 1977
(its twin craft called Voyager 2 was launched
16 days earlier). It weighs 722 kg and has been
traveling since it was launched away from the
sun with a current speed of around 17 km/s
and is located now at a distance from the sun
equal to around 17.67*109 km. for
comparison, the average distance from the sun
to Pluto is 5.91*109 km. It takes more than 16
hours for light (or an EM wave) to travel from
Earth to Voyager 1, compared to 8.3 minutes
for light to travel from Earth to the Sun.
(for more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_1)

How did Voyager 1 and other deep space crafts reach that high speed? They must have used a lot
of rocket fuel to propel themselves that fast.
Their initial speed immedialty after launch is usually not that high, but they gain speed afterwards
when they pass near other planets. A technique called gravity assist is used by which the motion
of the outer planets is used to speed up the motion of the space crafts.

OK, that is a big deal, but certainly Voyager 1 is out of reach. That is, we cannot communicate
with it because it is very far away. Isnt that true?
The answer is a BIG NOOOOOOOOO. Well, let us say that WE (meaning us at KFUPM) cannot
communicate with it, but NASA can and does communicate with it and it continuously receive
commands and transmits data to NASA. For example, every 6 months or so, NASA requests from
it to make a 180 degree rotation to calibrate some of its sensors by pointing them away from the
sun. Voyager has a high gain antenna and NASA uses a 30m high gain antenna to communicate
with it. These high gain antennas allow NASA to receive reasonably strong signals from it.
I know that for a communication system to transmit data with high reliability, the received signal
carrying data must be significantly strong compared to noise. I am guessing that the power of the
signal received on Earth from Voyager is so week that noise may possibly be much higher than it.
Isnt that true? If it is true, how are we able to receive data from it?
It is true. The signal power is much less than the noise power. The power of the signal received
from Voyager 1 on Earth is extremely low compared to the surrounding noise. However, what
counts is not really the SNR but a quantity called Eb/No. This is the energy per bit to the Noise
power per Hz. Because Voyager 1 and other deep space crafts transmit data at a relatively low bit
rate, the energy per bit is significantly high making this quantity relatively high.

Since Voyager 1 and 2 are so far from the sun, how are they getting their power from the sun to
remain operational? Let me say, how big are their solar cells?
They are not getting power from the sun and they dont have solar cells. Each one of them uses a
Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) that converts heat (generated by radioactive decay
of plutonium) into electricity that is used to operate the on board computers, transmitters, and
other equipment such as the attitude control, measurement devices, and cameras. The generators
produce approximately 1.5 kW of heat as a result of the radioactive decay. The RTG generated
approximately 470 W by converting the heat to electricity using thermocouples at the start of the
mission but this has dropped currently to around 270 W or so. The radio transmitters on the
voyagers transmit around 20 W of power or so.

How many man-made objects orbit Earth?

No one knows. The problem is that man-made objects that orbit Earth are not only satellites but a
lot of parts from old spacecrafts, rocket engines, old no longer functioning satellites. These
objects are usually called space junk. The United States Strategic Command currently tracks
around 9,000 objects that are larger than 10 cm in low earth orbits to try to avoid having them
collide with spacecrafts. Imagine a small 5 g screw travelling at a speed of around 8 km/s (which
is a typical speed of satellites and other objects in low earth orbits) hitting a satellite that is
travelling at the same speed but in opposite direction (making the effective speed of the collision
around 16 km/s), it becomes devastating and possibly deadly to astronauts or satellites.
Remember that the kinetic energy stored in a traveling object is E = mv2/2. A study suggests that
around 2 million objects larger than 2mm orbit earth.

Space is so huge, there are more than 1,000,000,000 cars on roads and they rarely collide, so what
are the chances of 1 of the 2 million objects hitting a satellite?
The chances are somehow significant. It has happened several times that space shuttles were hit
by something but usually these were notices after landing. Even satellites colliding with other
satellites is possible and has happened before. A Russian satellite hit an American satellite over
Siberia in February 2009 (see http://www.space.com/5542-satellite-destroyed-spacecollision.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_satellite_collision)

How many satellites orbit earth now?

The number of operational satellites currently is approximately equal to 3000. With the cost of
launching small satellites being only several million of USD and large satellites being few tens of
millions of USD, satellites became affordable to many countries and nations.
Are there any Saudi Satellites?
Saudi Arabia has several simple communication satellites that are in orbit. These satellites were
built by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology over the past several years. They are of
the type usually called micro-satellites meaning that their size is relatively small (several of them
have sizes around 0.2 X 0.2 X 0.2 m).

SaudiSat 1A

SaudiSat 1B
(20 cm, 10 kg)

SaudiSat 3 (200 kg)

What types of orbits do satellites orbit in?

Satellites orbit in two types of orbits: Circular and Elliptical orbits each having its uses. Circular
(or near circular) orbits are generally the most popular for communication satellites. These
circular orbits are divided based on the radius of orbits into 3 groups:
1. Low Earth Orbit (LEO): height from Earth surface to around 2000 km
2. Medium Earth Orbit (MEO): height from 2000 km to 35,786 km
3. High Earth Orbit (HEO): height above 35,786 km
What is so special about the height of 35,786 km which separates MEO orbits from HEO orbits?
This is the height of what is called a Geo-synchronous Earth Orbit. Satellites at that orbit will
circle earth in exactly the same time that Earth takes to make one complete rotation around itself.
So, at a specific time of each day, the satellite will appear to be at the same point at that moment
each day. If the satellite orbits Earths over its equator, the satellite appears to be stationary at all
times above a single point on the Equator. This orbit is called Geo-stationary Earth Orbit (GEO).

What are the main components (or systems) in a typical commercial communication satellite?
A typical commercial communication satellite will contain the following sub-systems (see

Communication Subsystem: This includes transponders

Antenna Subsystem: includes directional and/or omni-directional antennas
Power Subsystem: Which includes batteries and solar cells
Structural Subsystem: Includes satellite frame to protect satellite during violent launch
operation and protect it from possible hits by meteors.
5. Thermal subsystem: includes thermal shields to protect satellite internal components and
electronics from high temperatures due to solar heating.
6. Attitude and Orbital Control Subsystem: which includes rocket motors, rocket fuel and
fuel tanks, and momentum wheels to stabilize satellite.
7. Telemetry, Tracking, Command, and Monitoring (TTC & M) Subsystem: which includes
100s of sensors to measure temperature, software status, switch positions, power of
communication equipment, power generated by solar cells, pressure in fuel tanks, attitude
information, Sensors to measure speed and acceleration,