Photo courtesy
Communication Satellite (COMSAT)

A communications satellite (sometimes abbreviated to COMSAT) is an artificial satellite stationed in space for the purposes of telecommunications. Modern communications satellites use a variety of orbits including geostationary orbits, Molniya orbits, Low Earth Orbit (polar and non-polar) and other elliptical orbits.

For fixed (point-to-point) services, communications satellites provide a technology complementary to that of fiber optic submarine communication cables. They are also used for mobile applications such as communications to ships, vehicles, planes and hand-held terminals, and for TV and radio broadcasting, for which application of other technologies, such as cable, is impractical or impossible.

Geostationary Orbits

A satellite in a geostationary orbit appears to be in a fixed position to an earth-based observer. A geostationary satellite revolves around the earth at a constant speed once per day over the equator.

The geostationary orbit is useful for communications applications because ground based antennas, which must be directed toward the satellite, can operate effectively without the need for expensive equipment to track the satellite's motion. Especially for applications that require a large number of ground antennas (such as direct TV distribution), the savings in ground equipment can more than justify the extra cost and onboard complexity of lifting a satellite into the relatively high geostationary orbit.

Low-Earth-Orbiting Satellites

A Low Earth Orbit (LEO) typically is a circular orbit about 400 kilometres above the earth's surface and, correspondingly, a period (time to revolve around the earth) of about 90 minutes. Because of their low altitude, these satellites are only visible from within a radius of roughly 1000 kilometres from the sub-satellite point. In addition, satellites in low earth orbit change their position relative to the ground position quickly. So even for local applications, a large number of satellites are needed if the mission requires uninterrupted connectivity.

Low earth orbiting satellites are less expensive to position in space than geostationary satellites and, because of their closer proximity to the ground, require lower signal strength (Recall that signal strength falls off as the square of the distance from the source, so the effect is dramatic). So there is a trade off between the number of satellites and their cost. In addition, there are important differences in the onboard and ground equipment needed to support the two types of missions.

A group of satellites working in concert thus is known as a satellite constellation. Two such constellations which were intended for provision for satellite phone services, primarily to remote areas, were the Iridium and Globalstar. The Iridium satellite constellation is a system of 66 active communication satellites with spares in orbit and on the ground. It allows worldwide voice and data communications using handheld satellite phones. The Iridium network is unique in that it covers the whole earth, including poles, oceans and airways.

It is also possible to offer discontinuous coverage using a low Earth orbit satellite capable of storing data received while passing over one part of Earth and transmitting it later while passing over another part. Another system using this store and forward method is Orbcomm.


Telephony - The first and historically most important application for communication satellites was in intercontinental long distance telephony. The fixed Public Switched Telephone Network relays telephone calls from land line telephones to an earth station, where they are then transmitted to a geostationary satellite. The downlink follows an analogous path. Improvements in Submarine communications cables caused a decline in the use of satellites for fixed telephony in the late 20th century but they still serve remote islands.

Satellite phones connect directly to a constellation of geostationary or low earth orbit satellites. Calls are then forwarded to a teleport connected to the PSTN network or another satellite phone.

Satellite Television and Radio - Television became the main market, its demand for simultaneous delivery of relatively few signals of large bandwidth to many receivers being a more precise match for the capabilities of geosynchronous comsats.

Mobile Satellite Technologies - Initially available for broadcast to stationary TV receivers, by 2004 popular mobile direct broadcast applications made their appearance with that arrival of two satellite radio systems in the United States.

Some manufacturers have also introduced special antennas for mobile reception of DBS television. Using GPS technology as a reference, these antennas automatically re-aim to the satellite no matter where or how the vehicle (that the antenna is mounted on) is situated.

Amateur Radio - Amateur radio operators have access to the OSCAR satellites that have been designed specifically to carry amateur radio traffic. Most such satellites operate as spaceborne repeaters, and are generally accessed by amateurs equipped with UHF or VHF radio equipment and highly directional antennas such as Yagis or dish antennas. Due to the limitations of ground-based amateur equipment, most amateur satellites are launched into fairly low Earth orbits, and are designed to deal with only a limited number of brief contacts at any given time. Some satellites also provide data-forwarding services using the AX.25 or similar protocols.

Satellite Broadband - After the 1990s, satellite communication technology has been used as a means to connect to the Internet via broadband data connections. This can be very useful for users who are located in very remote areas, and cannot access a wireline broadband or dialup connection.

Military Uses - Communications satellites are used for military communications applications, such as Global Command and Control Systems.