A Moment of Science

Geostationary Satellites: Speed And Orbit

Why can't we place satellites directly above houses that are using the signal? Why does speed determine the placement of satellites? Find out now!

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Photo: Edward Webb (Flickr)

The lines coming from the earth have small satellites on the end, showing their geostationary orbit in a fixed position.

A geostationary satellite orbits the planet at the same rate as the planet rotates, so the satellite is always over the same patch of ground.

Cool! you say. I’d like to have one of those about twenty feet over my house. Sadly, geos only work easily at one distance: 22,500 miles up.

So, Why Can’t It Be Right Above My House?

Other satellites can have different orbits, can’t they? Yes, they can. But that’s because they can also move at different speeds.

A geo doesn’t have that option — by definition it must orbit at the same speed as the earth turns. And that speed determines how high it must be!

Why Does Speed Determine How High It Must Be?

A satellite has to move at a certain speed to balance out gravity; otherwise it won’t stay in orbit. Now, a geo must move at the speed the earth turns.

If you put it in a very low altitude, that speed wouldn’t be enough to balance gravity.

Go higher, though, and gravity gets weaker. At 22,500 miles, gravity will be just weak enough so that a satellite moving at the speed of the earth’s rotation will stay in orbit without help.

Expensive Option…

Of course, if you wanted to have a geo at a different altitude, you could always attach rockets to it and have them push continuously. But that’s a pretty expensive option. At 22,500 miles, nothing else is required.

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