Low Earth orbit satellites (LEOs) are becoming extremely popular. Despite issues like proliferated LEO, the advantages and potential of LEO are leading many organizations to turn to them for a variety of communication, business, defense and other needs.
Getting to know LEOs
Techopedia defines LEOs as satellite systems used in telecommunications that orbit the Earth between 400 and 1,200 miles above the surface. Low Earth orbit satellites offer advantages over other forms of satellite communication and are used in data communication and email, video conferencing, paging and more.
LEO-based telecommunication systems are less costly than medium Earth orbit (MEO) or high Earth orbit (HEO) options, which also take longer to orbit the Earth. An example of an MEO would be a navigation satellite, designed for monitoring a specific region. Weather and scientific satellites tend to be HEOs, though some are also used in communications.
LEO satellites move at extremely high speeds, due to the pull of Earth’s gravity. For example, NASA’s Aqua satellite orbits the Earth in approximately 99 minutes at 705 kilometers above the surface. According to NASA, we can contrast the speed of the Aqua satellite with that of a weather satellite, about 36,000 kilometers from Earth’s surface. Such a weather satellite completes an orbit in about 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds. For another point of reference, consider that the moon, at 384,403 kilometers from Earth’s center, completes an orbit in 28 days.
Data is transmitted through low Earth orbit as it is handed off from one satellite to another. LEO satellites typically move in and out of the range of stations transmitting from Earth, which do not need to be as powerful as those transmitting to MEOs or HEOs. This gives LEOs a significant advantage.
In addition to requiring less powerful amplifiers for transmission from Earth, LEOs also require less energy to be put into orbit. For this reason, most communication applications use LEO satellites. However, it’s important to note that LEO orbits require a network of satellites for continuous coverage.
LEO key points:
Low Earth orbit satellites:
- Operate 400-1,200 miles above Earth’s surface.
- Are used for data communication such as email and video conferencing.
- Travel at higher speeds than satellites at medium or high Earth orbits (MEOs or HEOs).
- Are generally less costly than MEO or HEO satellites.
- Require less powerful amplified transmissions from Earth.
- Require less energy to be put into orbit.
- Utilize a network of satellites for continuous coverage.
LEO satellites have become so popular that, as studies reveal, the LEO environment is becoming crowded with space debris. In fact, NASA estimates that there are more than 8,000 objects larger than a softball circling the globe at LEO. However, not all of these objects are “proliferated LEO” (large numbers of small satellites in low Earth orbit). The debris can also consist of old rocket pieces, broken satellites and even — apologies for the mental imagery — frozen sewage.
With all that detritus floating around, it’s clear that the proliferated LEO issue needs to be addressed. Where there are issues, however, there is an opportunity for innovative solutions, and many organizations and agencies are rising to the challenge.
LeoLabs of Menlo Park, CA, seeks to become the Google Maps of low Earth orbit satellites by using phased-array radar systems near Fairbanks, AK, and Midland, TX, to track LEO objects. The startup also has plans to build a third radar in New Zealand.
LeoLabs, which services commercial satellite operators, regulatory and civilian space agencies, and insurance companies, also expects U.S. military business to increase. The Department of Defense (DoD) and LeoLabs are currently working on solutions related to satellite maneuvering and collision prevention.
LeoLabs aims to capitalize on operating within the congested LEO area, while other companies focus on building and launching satellites, downlinking data and the like. According to the CEO, this provides a manageable challenge. He and his company are ready to wrangle the approximately 1,000 active satellites in LEO, while expecting that number to grow.
LEO proliferation key points:
- NASA estimates 8,000+ objects larger than a softball in LEO.
- There are approximately 1,000 active satellites in LEO.
- Commercial and government experts utilize radar systems to track and manage LEO objects.
- LEO proliferation issues present opportunities for government and private sector cooperation.
- LEO proliferation offers reconnaissance, communications and national security opportunities.
- The number of LEO objects is expected to rise with the demand.
The U.S. Air Force and low Earth orbit satellites
The U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence radar, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, is about to become operational. It will improve upon small object tracking. DoD and Air Force sensors are well-suited to some activities, but the military will still need help tracking commercial activity and debris paths.
There are currently not enough sensors to adequately monitor LEO congestion and some satellites could go untracked for weeks after launch. Such cases clearly cause concern for military and intelligence communities.
In addition to Space Fence, the Air Force is also working with Hypergiant Industries on an upgradable 36-LEO-satellite Chameleon Constellation system. Hypergiant plans to launch their first prototype, funded with Air Force Small Business Innovation Research grants, early in 2021.
According to the company’s chief executive, the goal is to give the Air Force a technical edge in space. Using the system will give the Air Force the ability to update satellite functionality on the fly based on real-time data.
The Space Development Agency
Low Earth orbit satellites are also on the radar of the U.S. government’s newly created Space Development Agency (SDA). The agency will design a proliferated LEO architecture for supporting military activities. Areas of interest for the SDA are missile detection, global navigation and communications. The Director of the SDA believes the DoD will be able to shift some capabilities from large spacecraft in higher orbits to small LEO satellites within a few years.
The National Reconnaissance Office
In addition, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) also seeks to take advantage of lower-cost LEO satellites and the cheaper launch services associated with them. On larger networks of spacecraft, the Director of NRO’s geospatial intelligence directorate says, “You can have a higher failure rate and be able to deal with that. Losing two out of 10 is not as bad as losing one of two.”
Military & Aerospace Electronics reports that higher orbit projects could become obsolete almost overnight due to the fast-paced growth of the LEO market. In a recent article, they explain how the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is getting in on the game. DARPA, in its Blackjack project, seeks to orbit a constellation of small, secure and affordable military satellites. These satellites will be designed to capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies. DARPA officials are seeking industry solutions for mixing and matching commercial satellite buses, military satellite communications (SATCOM) and reconnaissance payloads.
The expansion of broadband
As demand for low Earth orbit satellites increases and broadband services expand, companies like X2nSat are able to provide access from virtually anywhere. Harnessing the power of LEO satellite technology allows industry veterans like X2nSat to offer service beyond the limitations of the usual terrestrial networks. The company’s services are accessible in even the most remote locations, meeting the demands of today’s businesses.
X2nSat fills the void for organizations lacking terrestrial internet options, offering them flexible usage plans, high bandwidth and high quality. Such LEO satellite services can also provide continuity and disaster recovery solutions for businesses that rely on data centers or cloud applications.
X2nSat services hospitals, offering backup systems that allow them to make calls and access patient records when they lose internet or phone connectivity. They also provide service that keeps retail businesses and restaurants from losing business due to credit and debit card transaction interruptions. Additionally, X2nSat offers primary connectivity to remote utility substations, oil pipelines and gas pipelines. Customers and clients utilizing the LEO satellite services can easily communicate with remote technicians and monitor their assets in the field.
LEO broadband/data network key points:
- Internet, email and data storage solutions are accessible from virtually anywhere.
- X2nSat can offer organizations primary or secondary (backup) services.
- Flexible usage plans offer high-speed connectivity and high quality.
- Services can be tailored for business continuity and disaster recovery.
- It’s excellent for businesses that rely on data centers and cloud applications.
Whether you represent a communications organization, a government agency or contractor, a medical facility, a petroleum business or emergency services, there is no better time to get on board with LEO satellite technology. Launch your organization into greater success by taking advantage of all the benefits low Earth orbit satellites have to offer. The sky is the limit, so get in touch with X2nSat today!
Cara is the marketing coordinator at X2nSat. She’s a social media maverick, a content genius, and an author in her spare time. Writing and marketing are her true passions.