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Satellite Orbits

This information is adapted and expanded from "Looking at Earth From Space", a Teacher's Guide with Activities for Earth and Space Science, 1994, available from NASA Educator Resource Centers.

Satellites can operate in several types of Earth orbit. The most common orbits for environmental satellites are geostationary and polar, but some instruments also fly in inclined orbits. Other types of orbits are possible, such as the Molniya orbits commonly used for Soviet spacecraft. 

Geostationary Orbits

A geostationary (GEO=geosynchronous) orbit is one in which the satellite is always in the same position with respect to the rotating Earth. The satellite orbits at an elevation of approximately 35,790 km because that produces an orbital period (time for one orbit) equal to the period of rotation of the Earth (23 hrs, 56 mins, 4.09 secs). By orbiting at the same rate, in the same direction as Earth, the satellite appears stationary (synchronous with respect to the rotation of the Earth).

Geostationary satellites provide a "big picture" view, enabling coverage of weather events. This is especially useful for monitoring severe local storms and tropical cyclones.

Because a geostationary orbit must be in the same plane as the Earth's rotation, that is the equatorial plane, it provides distorted images of the polar regions with poor spatial resolution. 

Polar Orbits

Polar-orbiting satellites provide a more global view of Earth, circling at near-polar inclination (the angle between the equatorial plane and the satellite orbital plane -- a true polar orbit has an inclination of 90 degrees). Orbiting at an altitude of 700 to 800 km, these satellites cover best the parts of the world most difficult to cover in situ (on site). For example, McMurdo, Antartica, can be seen on 11-12 of the 14 daily NOAA polar-orbiter passes.

These satellites operate in a sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite passes the equator and each latitude at the same local solar time each day, meaning the satellite passes overhead at essentially the same solar time throughout all seasons of the year. This feature enables regular data collection at consistent times as well as long-term comparisons. The orbital plane of a sun-synchronous orbit must also rotate approximately one degree per day to keep pace with the Earth's surface. 

The Terra/Aqua satellites are polar orbiting satellites.  FAQ: How can there be more than one overpass in a single day?

Inclined Orbits

Inclined orbits fall between those above. They have an inclination between 0 degrees (equatorial orbit) and 90 degrees (polar orbit). These orbits may be determined by the region on Earth that is of most interest (i.e., an instrument to study the tropics may be best put on a low inclination satellite), or by the latitude of the launch site. The orbital altitude of these satellites is generally on the order of a few hundred km, so the orbital period is on the order of a few hours. These satellites are not sun-synchronous, however, so they will view a place on Earth at varying times.

More information on orbits can be found at http://octopus.gma.org/surfing/satellites/index.html. You can also find an orbit visualizer which will show you what various orbits look like (requires a Java-enabled browser).

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Page Curator: Jay Madigan
NASA Official : Lin Chambers
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