Three Classes of Orbit

High Earth Orbit

When a satellite reaches exactly 42,164 kilometers from the center of the Earth (about 36,000 kilometers from Earth’s surface), it enters a sort of “sweet spot” in which its orbit matches Earth’s rotation. Because the satellite orbits at the same speed that the Earth is turning, the satellite seems to stay in place over a single longitude, though it may drift north to south. This special, high Earth orbit is called geosynchronous.

A satellite in a circular geosynchronous orbit directly over the equator (eccentricity and inclination at zero) will have a geostationary orbit that does not move at all relative to the ground. It is always directly over the same place on the Earth’s surface.

A geostationary orbit is extremely valuable for weather monitoring because satellites in this orbit provide a constant view of the same surface area. When you log into your favorite weather web site and look at the satellite view of your hometown, the image you are seeing comes from a satellite in geostationary orbit. Every few minutes, geostationary satellites like the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) satellites send information about clouds, water vapor, and wind, and this near-constant stream of information serves as the basis for most weather monitoring and forecasting.

12 hours of full disk observations from GOES.
Satellites in geostationary orbit rotate with the Earth directly above the equator, continuously staying above the same spot. This position allows satellites to observe weather and other phenomena that vary on short timescales. (NASA images by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen and Robert Simmon.)

Because geostationary satellites are always over a single location, they can also be useful for communication (phones, television, radio). Built and launched by NASA and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the GOES satellites provide a search and rescue beacon used to help locate ships and airplanes in distress.

Finally, many high Earth orbiting satellites monitor solar activity. The GOES satellites carry a large contingent of “space weather” instruments that take images of the Sun and track magnetic and radiation levels in space around them.

Other orbital “sweet spots,” just beyond high Earth orbit, are the Lagrange points. At the Lagrange points, the pull of gravity from the Earth cancels out the pull of gravity from the Sun. Anything placed at these points will feel equally pulled toward the Earth and the Sun and will revolve with the Earth around the Sun.

Of the five Lagrange points in the Sun-Earth system, only the last two, called L4 and L5, are stable. A satellite at the other three points is like a ball balanced at the peak of a steep hill: any slight perturbation will push the satellite out of the Lagrange point like the ball rolling down the hill. Satellites at these three points need constant adjustments to stay balanced and in place. Satellites at the last two Lagrange points are more like a ball in a bowl: even if perturbed, they return to the Lagrange point.

Diagram of Lagrange points.
Lagrange points are special locations where a satellite will stay stationary relative to the Earth as the satellite and the Earth revolve around the Sun. L1 and L2 are positioned above the day and night sides of the Earth, respectively. L3 is on the other side of the Sun, opposite the Earth. L4 and L5 are 60° ahead and behind the Earth in the same orbit. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)
Diagram of Lagrange points L1 and L2.
The Lagrange points nearest the Earth are about 5 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. L1 is between the Sun and Earth, and always views the Earth’s daylight side. L2 is opposite the sun, always on the night side. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)

The first Lagrange point is located between the Earth and the Sun, giving satellites at this point a constant view of the Sun. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a NASA and European Space Agency satellite tasked to monitor the Sun, orbits the first Lagrange point, about 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth.

The second Lagrange point is about the same distance from the Earth, but is located behind the Earth. Earth is always between the second Lagrange point and the Sun. Since the Sun and Earth are in a single line, satellites at this location only need one heat shield to block heat and light from the Sun and Earth. It is a good location for space telescopes, including the future James Webb Space Telescope (Hubble’s successor, scheduled to launch in 2014) and the current Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), used for studying the nature of the universe by mapping background microwave radiation.

The third Lagrange point is opposite the Earth on the other side of the Sun so that the Sun is always between it and Earth. A satellite in this position would not be able to communicate with Earth. The extremely stable fourth and fifth Lagrange points are in Earth’s orbital path around the Sun, 60 degrees ahead of and behind Earth. The twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft will orbit at the fourth and fifth Lagrange points to provide a three-dimensional view of the Sun.

Images from STEREO Behind and Ahead showing the same sunspot from two persepctives.
The twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft took these images of sunspot 1024 on July 5, 2009, while on their way to L4 and L5. The perspectives of the Sun from 60 degrees behind (left) and ahead (right) of Earth’s orbit reveal portions of the Sun’s surface that would otherwise be hidden from view. (NASA images courtesy STEREO Science Center.)

Medium Earth Orbit

Closer to the Earth, satellites in a medium Earth orbit move more quickly. Two medium Earth orbits are notable: the semi-synchronous orbit and the Molniya orbit.

The semi-synchronous orbit is a near-circular orbit (low eccentricity) 26,560 kilometers from the center of the Earth (about 20,200 kilometers above the surface). A satellite at this height takes 12 hours to complete an orbit. As the satellite moves, the Earth rotates underneath it. In 24-hours, the satellite crosses over the same two spots on the equator every day. This orbit is consistent and highly predictable. It is the orbit used by the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

The second common medium Earth orbit is the Molniya orbit. Invented by the Russians, the Molniya orbit works well for observing high latitudes. A geostationary orbit is valuable for the constant view it provides, but satellites in a geostationary orbit are parked over the equator, so they don’t work well for far northern or southern locations, which are always on the edge of view for a geostationary satellite. The Molniya orbit offers a useful alternative.

Illustration of the Molniya orbit.
The Molniya orbit combines high inclination (63.4°) with high eccentricity (0.722) to maximize viewing time over high latitudes. Each orbit lasts 12 hours, so the slow, high-altitude portion of the orbit repeats over the same location every day and night. Russian communications satellites and the Sirius radio satellites currently use this type of orbit. (Adapted from Fundamentals of Space Systems by Vincent L. Pisacane, 2005.)

The Molniya orbit is highly eccentric: the satellite moves in an extreme ellipse with the Earth close to one edge. Because it is accelerated by our planet’s gravity, the satellite moves very quickly when it is close to the Earth. As it moves away, its speed slows, so it spends more time at the top of its orbit farthest from the Earth. A satellite in a Molniya orbit takes 12 hours to complete its orbit, but it spends about two-thirds of that time over one hemisphere. Like a semi-synchronous orbit, a satellite in the Molniya orbit passes over the same path every 24 hours. This type of orbit is useful for communications in the far north or south.

Low Earth Orbit

Most scientific satellites and many weather satellites are in a nearly circular, low Earth orbit. The satellite’s inclination depends on what the satellite was launched to monitor. The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite was launched to monitor rainfall in the tropics. Therefore, it has a relatively low inclination (35 degrees), staying near the equator.

Map showing TRMM's low Earth orbit at an inclination of 35 degrees.
TRMM’s low orbital inclination—just 35° from the equator—allows its instruments to concentrate on the tropics. This image shows one half of the observations TRMM makes in a single day. (NASA image courtesy TRMM Project.)

Many of the satellites in NASA’s Earth Observing System have a nearly polar orbit. In this highly inclined orbit, the satellite moves around the Earth from pole to pole, taking about 99 minutes to complete an orbit. During one half of the orbit, the satellite views the daytime side of the Earth. At the pole, satellite crosses over to the nighttime side of Earth.

As the satellites orbit, the Earth turns underneath. By the time the satellite crosses back into daylight, it is over the region adjacent to the area seen in its last orbit. In a 24-hour period, polar orbiting satellites will view most of the Earth twice: once in daylight and once in darkness.

Just as the geosynchronous satellites have a sweet spot over the equator that lets them stay over one spot on Earth, the polar-orbiting satellites have a sweet spot that allows them to stay in one time. This orbit is a Sun-synchronous orbit, which means that whenever and wherever the satellite crosses the equator, the local solar time on the ground is always the same. For the Terra satellite for example, it’s always about 10:30 in the morning when the satellite crosses the equator in Brazil. When the satellite comes around the Earth in its next overpass about 99 minutes later, it crosses over the equator in Ecuador or Colombia at about 10:30 local time.

Illustration of a sun synchronous orbit.
A Sun-synchronous orbit crosses over the equator at approximately the same local time each day (and night). This orbit allows consistent scientific observations with the angle between the Sun and the Earth’s surface remaining relatively constant. These illustrations show 3 consecutive orbits of a sun-synchronous satellite with an equatorial crossing time of 1:30 pm. The satellite’s most recent orbit is indicated by the dark red line, while older orbits are lighter red. View animation. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)

The Sun-synchronous orbit is necessary for science because it keeps the angle of sunlight on the surface of the Earth as consistent as possible, though the angle will change from season to season. This consistency means that scientists can compare images from the same season over several years without worrying too much about extreme changes in shadows and lighting, which can create illusions of change. Without a Sun-synchronous orbit, it would be very difficult to track change over time. It would be impossible to collect the kind of consistent information required to study climate change.

The path that a satellite has to travel to stay in a Sun-synchronous orbit is very narrow. If a satellite is at a height of 100 kilometers, it must have an orbital inclination of 96 degrees to maintain a Sun-synchronous orbit. Any deviation in height or inclination will take the satellite out of a Sun-synchronous orbit. Since the drag of the atmosphere and the tug of gravity from the Sun and Moon alter a satellite’s orbit, it takes regular adjustments to maintain a satellite in a Sun-synchronous orbit.