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What Are Satellites Used For?

Even though we survived a long time without them, it’s difficult now to imagine a world that doesn’t have satellites.

Last year saw the launch of more than 1,400 satellites, bringing our world total to around 7,500 by September 2021.

Why do we need so many? Truthfully, they’re not all active – many are little more than space junk, long since having served their purpose – but those that are still going, affect our lives in many different ways.

Barriers to entry have reduced as the miniaturisation of technology advances and space commercialisation accelerates, meaning there are many more satellites to follow.

How are satellites used in everyday life?

It’s highly unlikely that any of us go a day without benefitting from signals out of low Earth orbit.

Satellites have become the backbone of global communications for applications ranging from entertainment to safety and emergency rescue.

In everyday life, some of the simplest technological staples at home rely on satellites.

Their various payloads can suit a variety of missions and solve a great number of problems, chiefly by relaying signals in ways that would be vastly more complex using only terrestrial stations.

Many satellites, such as those used in communications, are launched in a way that positions them in geostationary orbit.

This means that their orbit matches the rotation of Earth in such a way that, to us on the planet’s surface, they don’t appear to move in the sky.

Using these stationary calibration points, Earth-based antennas can track them without the need to rotate. Like the constellations in the stars, we always know where we can find them.

Five things satellites are used for

Entertainment

Television distribution now relies heavily on signals from satellites. The most direct method, called Satellite Direct-to-Home, sends the signals as radio waves that are received through the satellite dishes mounted on the outside of the recipient homes. These are then decoded and converted into the moving images on the screen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that satellites form the backbone of TV distribution now, as even cable and terrestrial formats make liberal use of them. Terrestrial ‘headend’ stations receive the signals to then redistribute them to homes. Live broadcasts from “on the scene” reporting rely on satellites to carry them from wherever they are to studios too.

Radio has also benefitted heavily from satellite distribution, which allows signals to cover wider areas than those originating from ground-based transmitters. Radio signals are easily disrupted by hilly or mountainous terrain, making the vantage point of satellites very useful.

Navigation

‘Sat nav’ is a staple of the English lexicon, and the technology itself has gone from a dedicated piece of equipment fixed inside vehicles into a function that practically any mobile phone on the market can now perform. It has come a long way from the oft-mocked system that made frequent mistakes and occasionally tried to send drivers into rivers.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has revolutionised all sectors of society and the economy. Deliveries can be tracked in real-time with exact coordinates; search engines can use our locations to deliver more accurate results; satellite-based systems guide aviation and increase safety, albeit with augmentation that makes them more accurate and reliable.

Though the GPS system was originally designed only for military use – and still provides essential strategic information for the military across all domains – it has become sophisticated enough to take us anywhere we want to go on a daily basis.

Earth observation

The concept of planetary observation from space may sound daunting on the surface, but there are many vital functions that satellite observation affords us. Observation from low orbit can be turned both outward and inward, capturing images and data from our solar system, or of Earth itself. With the challenges of climate change becoming ever more relevant and pressing, the ability to monitor our environment is vital.

One such satellite, Seahawk, was developed by the University of North Carolina for such a purpose. Using a multi-spectral camera it is able to monitor ocean colour, inferring changes to the ecosystems and substances within the waters. Seahawk was built using Bright Ascension’s Flight Software Development Kit, which ensured quick and efficient on-board software development, but also helped to reduce operational complexity to allow smooth interaction with NASA’s Near Earth Network (NEN).

Observation from orbit also gives meteorologists a clearer picture of weather patterns and how certain weather events could spark wider problems or cause catastrophic damage. In fact, the world’s first weather satellite, TIROS-1, launched in April of 1960. Among its first images was a typhoon around 1,000 miles east of Australia, instantly proving the efficacy of weather satellite imaging.

Modern iterations, such as Orbital Micro System’s GEMS programme aims to delivery highly accurate and frequent weather readings for the benefit of sectors from insurance to agriculture. These readings can help farmers know which crops to plant and when, and inform scientists tracking the spread of diseases.

Communication

In a broad sense most, if not all, satellites function in communication in some part. Certain satellites exist to facilitate communications between people, for telephony or two-way radio purposes.

There are remote civilisations where satellites are still the main source of telephone communications. Islands like Saint Helena and Easter Island rely on satellite telephones due to the lack of submarine cables, as well as some remote regions of Africa, Canada, Australia, and South America.

Kepler Communications Inc. are in the process of developing a constellation of 140 satellites targeting the Internet of Things, featuring both broadband and narrowband telecommunications for the benefit of maritime, agriculture, research and exploration, government, and transportation.

The potential of software defined radio (SDR) for small satellites is under ongoing investigation. These systems are highly flexible and are able to accommodate over-the-air software updates, which would benefit a range of different satellites working in communication functions.

Regarding the Earth’s greatest communication tool – the internet – there are now solutions that deliver internet connections directly from satellites. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one company looking to deliver global satellite-based Wi-Fi with its Starlink project. Though satellite-based internet already exists, current offerings are sparse and expensive, as well largely irrelevant for households that have access to cable services.

Intelligence

Despite the noble causes for which most satellites go up into orbit, many are instrumental in nations’ efforts to spy on others. Intelligence-gathering satellites can harvest a wealth of data from loose signals, such as those from mobile phone towers and the internet.

As well as eavesdropping on communications traffic, satellites can use their advanced imaging payloads to record video and take photographs. These images can then be downlinked back to Earth as the satellite passes over ground stations.

The earliest satellites used for reconnaissance actually used wet film, which had to be returned to Earth in a capsule system using a parachute. This film was then collected and taken to a lab to be developed.

As space becomes a busier and more contested domain, many satellites will have the job of delivering more than one service and being used by a number of companies. Satellites such as the Faraday Phoenix are ideal for such purposes. Its function as a ‘rideshare’ means that it can carry a variety of third-party payloads, allowing collaboration on joint projects or the fulfilment of several separate missions.

Of course, these are just some of our current uses of satellites. The future is full of possibility, and the answers to some of our biggest questions are yet to be found. There is even ongoing research to investigate whether satellites could beam solar power directly to Earth on a reliable basis, providing a clear and renewable source of energy.

Why are satellites so important to humans today?

Many, many companies and sectors have invested themselves into satellite technology.

For instance, the Global Positioning System provides the timekeeping system that allows cash machines and cashless transactions to function as they do. This is thanks to an atomic clock aboard each of the 31 satellites making up the constellation. Without them, clocks would desynchronise and many networks would begin to suffer and slow down, even halt entirely.

As mentioned previously, many remote locations rely on satellite-aided phones to uphold communications. Leaving the people of these places without the ability to speak over long distances would be to leave them without essential infrastructure.

And gone are the days where your taxi driver knows every street by heart. Why try to work from memory or referring to an outdated A-Z when you can access a live, constantly updating bank of navigation info readily available on your phone?

This is where the real importance of satellites comes in to society, for better or worse – we need rely less on ourselves, and can rest knowing that satellite networks are keeping time, keeping watch, and keeping (practically) everything held together.

It goes without saying that certain satellite networks like GPS arguably present as big a weakness as they do a strength. If they were to fail, either through accident or as the result of malicious actions, it would present big problems for society on the ground.

How do satellites benefit us?

Satellites benefit us by providing an essential global network that unlocks the full potential of our ability to communicate. Without satellites providing the advantages of their positions in Earth’s orbit, radio signals would be at the mercy of geographical obstacles and observation posts would be obfuscated by clouds and other challenges to visibility.

Our collective knowledge would be limited were it not for satellites being able to collect data about space and our planet. Climate change already presents one of the greatest – if not the greatest – challenges for us to overcome. Satellite data allows us to track its progress and its effects on a global scale.

Tracking the melting of polar ice has been largely thanks to the vantage points of satellites, and the aforementioned Seahawk satellite is doing its part to monitor the knock-on effects in the oceans.

Messages can be sent and received quicker, data can be transferred in formats previously impossible, and events can be tracked around the world as they unfold. It’s no exaggeration to say that we would be left in the dark without satellites watching from on high.

What does Bright Ascension do for satellites?

We believe that satellite missions shouldn’t be left unaccomplished because of insufficient, slow-to-develop, or over-expensive software solutions.

Our Flight Software Development Kit is a truly unrivalled off-the-shelf solution that allows for unique mission-specific flight software, giving you the best of both worlds without the need for a time-consuming bespoke solution.

It includes a library of ready-made software component which can be used in a modular architecture to create different combinations. This makes it scalable, quicker to develop, and ultimately reduces your time to market.

Get in touch with us to book a demo or request a free trial today.