Satellites in Orbit

Mark M. / Physics 336 / 17 April 1997
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[ Positioning of Satellites ][ Orbital Adjustment ][ Command and Control ]


After the launching of a satellite there has to be a way to get the satellite into the correct position so that it will attain the correct orbit pattern. There are different stages and position placement tactics used to set the satellite in it's correct orbit. This is accomplished from the signals sent from the command center to the satellite and the on-board rockets move the satellite into position. Most of the time the people behind the scenes that are controlling the satellites like to put the satellite into a geosynchronous orbit. This is one kind of orbit that is in time with the Earth's rotation. There are certain times in which this type of orbit will be used to position the satellite.

Initial Positioning of Satellites

To begin the process of putting the satellite in orbit there are three stages. The first stage raises the satellite to an elevation of about 50 miles. The second stage raises the satellite 100 miles and the third stage places it into the transfer orbit. The satellite is placed in its final geosynchronous orbital slot by the AKM, a type of rocket used to move the satellite, which is fired on-command to allow the satellite to attain the apogee, the farthest point from Earth, of its elliptical orbit. A final thing to check is to make sure that a satellite that is to orbit the Earth is positioned at least 100 miles above the Earth's surface so that the atmospheric drag will not slow the satellite down (Cook 1).

Adjusting While in Orbit

Also important in the orbit of a satellite is the adjusting of it while in orbit. This is done through the use of rockets. Throughout the life of the satellite the orbit and attitude, the direction it points, must be adjusted. Generally they have on-board rockets for this purpose. Sometimes the rocket may be fired to accelerate the satellite and move it to a higher orbit or to decelerate the satellite and move it to a lower orbit. It can also be changed by firing the rocket to the side which changes the direction the satellite points. With the use of these special rockets the satellite can be moved at any time to any necessary position for any reason or another. The rockets help keep the satellite on its course without the possibility of it losing altitude or falling right out of the orbit in which it was in. A satellite's position has much to do with the time. For example, a satellite located 22,300 miles above the Earth's surface which is said to be synchronous, takes exactly 24 hours to orbit around the Earth once. This is said to be synchronous because it is synchronized with the Earth's rotation. Not all orbits are said to be synchronous and the time required for a satellite to complete one revolution around the Earth depends on its altitude. The laws that govern a satellite in orbit are the same laws that govern the motion of natural satellites and it travels around the planet in a nearly circular orbit when it reaches the 100 mile mark above the Earth's surface (Compton's Encyclopedia).

Command and Control

The command and control centers for the satellites play a big role in the keeping of a satellite in a particular orbit. As explained by Burke when he says, "Satellite command and control is exercised from the operational control nodes located at Orizuka Air Station, California, and Falcon Air Force Base, Colorado." From there, many of the techniques of positioning are controlled. Burke also says, "The AFSCN, Air Force Satellite Control Network, has a command and control segment that enables execution of phases used to position satellites." In conclusion Burke says in his article that the command center has tracking and command support from launch preparation to on-orbit operations (1).


It is interesting to know that the people who work with satellites have a large amount of control from a small room located on an Air Force base. Through their work the satellite can be launched, positioned, and adjusted with the touch of a few buttons. Although it is not as easy as it may seem. These people have to know exactly what there are doing or the satellite may not attain the proper orbit. The job is hard, but many satellites have been put in orbit without any problems.


Burke, John. "Satellite and Launch Control Systems Program." 1995: United States Air Force.

Cook, William C. "Launching Satellites into Orbit." 1996: America On-Line. 2 January 1997.

"How Artificial Satellites Work." Compton's New Century Encyclopedia and Reference Collection 2. CD-ROM. Compton's New Media, Inc. 1995.