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Section 1: LEO, Tracking, Satellites, etc...

Global Satellite Mobile 2-Way Communications

Here we provide additional information and links concerning mobile satellite 2-way communications with individual transceivers on earth. These transceivers might be a satellite telephone, a pager, a laptop, etc.

Globalstar and Iridium use constellations of satellites in low earth orbit to reduce signal transit times and to obtain higher bandwidth to power ratios than geostationary systems. Tthe satellites orbit faster than the earth turns so many satellites must be distributed in numerous orbits to insure that at least one satellite is always in view.

Conversely, Inmarsat and Thuraya use satellites in geostationary orbit and thus have longer delays and cannot cover the polar latitudes. However, they only need a few satellites.

[See the Shopping section for links to retailers of personal satellite communications products.]

Telephone/ Paging/ Data / Internet
Globalstar, Iridium Satellite

These multi-billion dollar systems provide, or intended to provide, telephone and/or data (e.g. internet) communications services. (See also the GEO Mobile Communications companies.)

By 2003 the large internet satellite constellation projects, e.g. Teledesic, SkyBridge were either canceled or suspended due to the severe depression in the general telecom market. Satellite Internet via GEO satellites continues with companies like WildBlue.

ICO was a major satellite constellation project that was also postponed but continues today as a combination of terrestrial and satellite communications, which falls in the category of Mobile Satellite Services. Skyterra and Terrastar are also MSS firms.

Iridium has over 66 satellites in orbit and began service in late 1998. However, due to poor marketing, high charges, late delivery of workable phones, gigantic debt load, spread of terrestrial cell phone systems, etc., the company attracted only 63 thousand subscribers instead of the 100s of thousands expected by mid-1999. It declared bankruptcy and even planned to begin de-orbiting of the satellites.

In November 2000, however, an investor group purchased the Iridium assets for $25 million. It received a 2 year contract with the US Dept. of Defense to supply communications services. Without a $4 billion debt to pay off, the new company, called Iridium Satellite, only had to attract another 30k of subscribers to break even.

The company reported in April 2008 that it was profitable and had over 280,000 subscribers worldwide by the summer of 2008. The company has said that it intends to apply for a FCC license for a next generation satellite system to replace the current constellation.

Iridium and partners are also now offering systems to provide low cost aviation communications - voice, data, & messaging:

Globalstar has a 48 satellite system that was much cheaper to build and use than Iridium. Instead of switching telephone connections on and between satellites, Globalstar satellites merely receive phone signals and relay them back to gateway stations on the ground. The gateways take care of switching the connection to the correct line. This means that mid-ocean and polar regions are not served, but most land and coastal areas will eventually be served.

Despite these advantages, Globalstar also failed to attract sufficient business and declared bankruptcy in February 2002. It was later sold to a group that took it private.

As of August 2008, Globalstar has 315,000 customers. Like Iridium, it is developing out niche markets such as emergency communications, low data rate tracking applications, aviation phones and data transmission, and workers in remote areas.

  • X-traWeb, for example, is using the Globalstar system to connect remote devices, e.g. fuel pipe monitoring sensors, to the web.
  • ARNAV is developing a cockpit communications system based on Globalstar.
  • AeroAstro has developed a tracking system that uses the Globalstar system

Inmarsat and Thuraya Satellite , which also now offer hand-held satellite phones, are discussed in the GEO Sat mobile communications section.

See also:

Tracking / Messaging / Data Monitoring

To make it economical to monitor the location of a railroad car or a truck on the highway, or to obtain readings on an electric meter or a pipeline pumping station, a low cost service is required.

Rather than the continuous (or, at least, appearing continuous to the user) connections needed for telephone calls or internet links, such services only need occasional short bursts of information.

Several systems, see below, provide such services. Currently they are mostly carried out by Geosat systems (e.g. Qualcomm's Omintracs) but LEO systems are now available. They also use the GPS system for location determination.

Recently, Globalstar and Iridium have begun to offer their systems for tracking and monitoring applications.

Satellite Builders

Thales Group
Orbital Sciences

Ball Aerospace
Clyde Space
MicroSat Systems

The geostationary communication satellites are getting as big as trailer homes. Economies of scale push to provide ever more transponders of increasing power, i.e. bandwidths. Building such satellites is a major challenge and is done by a few large aerospace companies.

Low earth communication satellites, on the other hand, more often involve smaller satellites but in high numbers. A wider range of companies build such birds.

Other satellites include those for scientific and military applications. These are built in significant numbers but the communications business is dominate.

Satellite Parts Suppliers

Ball Aerospace
Clyde Space
L-3 Comm
One Stop Satellite Solutions
RUAG Aerospace

General Dynamics Space Systems & Services (formerly Spectrum-Astro)

Whether its a major satellite company or a student nano-sat project, many parts are obtained from outside suppliers. Some companies both build their own satellites as well as supply parts to others.

Solar panels, sun sensors (for coarse orientation determination), reaction wheels (for spinning or de-spinning a satellite, etc, are typically obtained from companies specializing in these technologies.

The growing small satellite market has encouraged several startup enterprises.

Launch Services

Rocket Companies

Orbital Sciences
Sea Launch

More companies in the
Launcher & Propulsion
RLV sections

Although some or all of the development money may have come from government/military sources, many private companies now build and launch rockets purely for commercial payloads.

Arianespace holds the largest share of the worldwide commercial launch market. After the Challenger accident the shuttle was prohibited from commercial launchings. Since then US companies have gotten back into the market with improved versions of the Atlas and Delta rockets as well as some newer small vehicles such as the Orbital Science Pegasus. All of these vehicles are expendable, i.e. used once per flight.

Several small startup companies are designing and building completely reusable launchers. They are struggling for funding but could have vehicles in orbit within a couple of years.

They are aiming primarily at the low earth orbit market, especially the LEO communications constellations.

Engineering Services

Ground Systems, Mobile Uplink

EMS Tech

Ground Stations
Integral Systems
Satellite Uplink Communication Systems

Telemetry/Control Services
Binary Space
Universal Space Networks
Ecliptic Enterprises

Space Hardware
EMS Tech

Every satellite needs a ground system for control and telemetry operations. Of course, communication satellites also require ground antennas of various sizes, depending on the signal strengths, frequencies and bandwidths.

Remember that even the cable TV industry depends on satellite distribution of programming to local cable operators. If you drive by your local cable company, it will typically be surrounded by a cluster of large antennas. Even with today's fiber lines, it is still usually cheaper to multicast TV programming from a single satellite to multiple receivers.

The ground system business is not as glamorous as the rocket and satellite business but is a big and important one nonetheless. Besides the large antenna systems. there are over 16 million Americans with small direct-to-home and the larger C-band dishes.

When you use your credit card at a store or service station, the transaction may very well be carried out via a small dish (VSAT) on the roof.

These dishes are called Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) and allow businesses to create their own long distance, multi-point networks totally free of the telephone system.

The VSAT business is growing fast. The US Post Office, for example, recently ordered about 25000 terminals to provide to many of its offices. The intention was originally to use fast ground lines but a study found that satellite communications were more economical except for offices in the largest urban areas.

Also, go to the Global VSAT Forum

Ecliptic Enterprises - This company specializes in onboard imaging systems and data-transport systems for use with rockets, spacecraft and other remote platforms. They have put rocketcams on several vehicles that show in real time the "look-back" view as the rocket launches from the pad and all the way into space.


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey



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