A satellite constellation is a group of artificial satellites working in concert. Such a constellation can be considered to be a number of satellites with coordinated ground coverage, operating together under shared control, synchronized so that they overlap well in coverage, the period in which a satellite or other spacecraft is visible above the local horizon.
Low Earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) are often deployed in satellite constellations, because the coverage area provided by a single LEO satellite only covers a small area that moves as the satellite travels at the high angular velocity needed to maintain its orbit. Many LEO satellites are needed to maintain continuous coverage over an area. This contrasts with geostationary satellites, where a single satellite, moving at the same angular velocity as the rotation of the Earth's surface, provides permanent coverage over a large area.
Examples of satellite constellations include the Global Positioning System (GPS), Galileo and GLONASS constellations for navigation and geodesy, the Iridium and Globalstar satellite telephony services, the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and RapidEye for remote sensing, the Orbcomm messaging service, Russian elliptic orbit Molniya and Tundra constellations, the large-scale Teledesic and Skybridge broadband constellation proposals of the 1990s, and more recent systems such as O3b or the OneWeb proposal.
Broadband applications benefit from low-latency communications, so LEO satellite constellations provide an advantage over a geostationary satellite, where minimum theoretical latency from ground to satellite is about 125 milliseconds, compared to 1–4 milliseconds for a LEO satellite. A LEO satellite constellation can also provide more system capacity by frequency reuse across its coverage, with spot beam frequency use being analogous to the frequency reuse of cellular radio towers.
A group of formation-flying satellites very close together and moving in almost identical orbits is known as a satellite cluster or Satellite formation flying.
There are a large number of constellations that may satisfy a particular mission. Usually constellations are designed so that the satellites have similar orbits, eccentricity and inclination so that any perturbations affect each satellite in approximately the same way. In this way, the geometry can be preserved without excessive station-keeping thereby reducing the fuel usage and hence increasing the life of the satellites. Another consideration is that the phasing of each satellite in an orbital plane maintains sufficient separation to avoid collisions or interference at orbit plane intersections. Circular orbits are popular, because then the satellite is at a constant altitude requiring a constant strength signal to communicate.
A class of circular orbit geometries that has become popular is the Walker Delta Pattern constellation. This has an associated notation to describe it which was proposed by John Walker. His notation is:
- i: t/p/f
where: i is the inclination; t is the total number of satellites; p is the number of equally spaced planes; and f is the relative spacing between satellites in adjacent planes. The change in true anomaly (in degrees) for equivalent satellites in neighbouring planes is equal to f*360/t.
For example, the Galileo Navigation system is a Walker Delta 56°:27/3/1 constellation. This means there are 27 satellites in 3 planes inclined at 56 degrees, spanning the 360 degrees around the equator. The "1" defines the phasing between the planes, and how they are spaced. The Walker Delta is also known as the Ballard rosette, after A. H. Ballard's similar earlier work. Ballard's notation is (t,p,m) where m is a multiple of the fractional offset between planes.
Another popular constellation type is the near-polar Walker Star, which is used by Iridium. Here, the satellites are in near-polar circular orbits across approximately 180 degrees, travelling north on one side of the Earth, and south on the other. The active satellites in the full Iridium constellation form a Walker Star of 86.4°:66/6/2, i.e. the phasing repeats every two planes. Walker uses similar notation for stars and deltas, which can be confusing.
Example satellite constellations
- A-train (satellite constellation)
- Compass navigation system
- Disaster Monitoring Constellation
- Planet Labs
- Pléiades 1A and 1B
- Sirius Satellite Radio
- SPOT 6 and SPOT 7
- XM Satellite Radio
- J. G. Walker, Satellite constellations, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 37, pp. 559-571, 1984
- A. H. Ballard, Rosette Constellations of Earth Satellites, IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, Vol 16 No. 5, Sep. 1980.
- J. G. Walker, Comments on "Rosette constellations of earth satellites", IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, vol. 18 no. 4, pp. 723-724, November 1982.
Satellite constellation simulation tools:
- AVM Dynamics Satellite Constellation Modeler
- SaVi Satellite Constellation Visualization
- Transfinite Visualyse Professional