What is a satellite?

For those wondering ‘what is a satellite‘, a ‘satellite’ is a term given to an object placed into orbit around a celestial body. It can be classified as natural or artificial.

Natural satellites are celestial bodies that orbit a planet or a star. For example, Earth is a natural satellite because it orbits the Sun, and the Moon is another natural satellite because it orbits Earth.

However, the definition of a satellite more often refers to artificial examples, which are man-made objects launched into space that orbit around Earth or another celestial body.

They are comprised of a variety of components, and are complex pieces of hardware.

What are satellites used for?

Satellites are used for a multitude of purposes, which can be broken into 3 categories:

  • Communications, including broadcasting and IoT services. Satellites are used for communication by facilitating long-distance contact through telephone calls, television broadcasts, and internet connectivity.
  • Navigation. Satellites also send signals to navigation systems that can be used in cars, planes, ships and smartphones.
  • Forecasting Earth observation, including weather, climate monitoring and scientific research. Satellites can be deployed to monitor environmental changes, track wildlife, map forests, measure sea levels, and monitor natural disasters. Another motivation for using satellites is weather forecasting because they can collect and convey relevant data on weather patterns and climate change to meteorologists. Satellites can also be used by militaries to assist with surveillance.

The specific deployment of a satellite depends on what it is designed for.

Why are satellites important?

Satellites are important for a myriad of reasons and they play a significant role in our daily lives.

Without them, television broadcasts would not be possible – meaning there would be no way for us to watch some of our favourite shows!

More importantly, global satellite communications would be disrupted, potentially putting at risk sensitive military operations and leaving no way for soldiers, ships, and aircrafts to communicate with commanders.

Indeed, without satellites, communication in general would become challenging.

For example, aeroplane pilots would struggle to establish contact with air traffic control. An absence of satellites would also remove one way of making international phone calls too.

Because satellites are also responsible for global positioning system (GPS), we’d not be able to identify where we are, or where we’re going, without them.

Similarly, the absence of weather satellites would make it much more difficult to forecast the weather, which could lead to severe consequences. For example, satellites can detect early warning signs when it comes to natural disasters such as storms. Therefore, we would not be able to predict and prepare accordingly for this type of event.

The same applies for monitoring environmental phenomena like deforestation or pollution.

These are just some examples of the ways satellite technology plays an essential part in our daily lives, as well as assisting with our understanding of what’s happening.

Different types of satellite

Satellites can be categorised according to their orbit or purpose.

First, satellites are placed in different orbits. For example, Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are artificial objects that orbit the Earth at an altitude of less than 2,000 kilometres.

They typically have an orbital period of 128 minutes or less, which allows them to make around 11 orbits per day.

In 2024, the majority of artificial objects in outer space are in LEO. Earth monitoring satellites are often placed in LEO as they have a clear view of the surface of the Earth.

Medium Earth orbit (MEO) is an altitude of between 10,000 and 20,000 km and is used for navigation systems like GPS.

Meanwhile, geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites orbit at the same rate as the Earth’s rotation, which makes them appear still from the ground. They are primarily used for communications, broadcasting, and weather monitoring.

Other types of satellites are those that are in sun-synchronous orbit and geostationary transfer orbit.

A sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), also referred to as a heliosynchronous orbit, is a near-polar orbit around a planet where the satellite passes over any given point on the planet’s surface at the same local mean time. It means that the satellite always passes over the same location at the same local time.

A geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) is a type of geocentric orbit that acts as a middle ground for satellites bound for geosynchronous (GSO) or geostationary orbit (GEO).

How to build your own satellite

Thanks to the emergence of off-the-shelf hardware and even software solutions, like the products provided by companies like Bright Ascension, it’s easier than before to build your own satellite.

The process involves several steps, including design, identifying the correct components, building the satellite itself and then testing it.

First, you should define why you are building a satellite. As described above, satellites have different purposes and it’s essential to have a clear vision of your mission.

Next, you need to design the satellite after deciding on its size and shape, as well as its appearance. At this stage, it is also necessary to identify the appropriate type of orbit – be it LEO, MEO or GEO.

Once the relevant components are selected, the satellite will need to be assembled.

A satellite should not be launched without being tested thoroughly and carefully beforehand.

The final stage is to a launch into space with the relevant space launch provider.

Remember, there are established rules and safety procedures that need to be considered when launching a satellite into space, regardless of its size.

Thankfully, the process of designing, building, and launching a satellite can be simplified by getting your satellite subsystems off-the-shelf or readily available. This can even include software, provided by Bright Ascension.

As experts in the field of mission-ready software for space and ground operations, we provide solutions that can help simplify your satellite mission through our innovative flight and ground software products such as flight software development kit.

For example, CubeSats are a small type of satellite that are more cost-effective than other types of satellites along with low development effort.

Made up of 10x10x10cm units and weighing no more than 1.33kg per unit, these small-scale satellites can be designed, built, tested and delivered in as little as six months, although it typically takes 18 to 24 months to complete.

Software supplied by Bright Ascension can be one of the off-the-shelf components of CubeSat development.

Just like hardware, flight software can come readily available to accelerate the development while guaranteeing that it can be accessed early in the development process for rigorous testing and successful integration.

We also are on hand to provide advice on how to build a CubeSat on a budget as well as tips that can help make your mission a success.

With years of expertise with regards to building satellites from the initial stages of planning to the process of actually launching the satellite.

So, why not contact us today to get support in your mission from the planning to the launching stages?

We can assist you by answering any questions that you have relating to your mission, including providing you with components that are necessary for your mission.