A group of artificial satellites working in concert is known as a satellite constellation. Such a constellation can be considered to be a number of satellites with coordinated ground coverage, operating together under shared control, synchronised so that they overlap well in coverage and complement rather than interfere with other satellites' coverage.
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, and the large-scale Teledesic and Skybridge broadband constellation proposals of the 1990s.
Broadband applications benefit from low-latency communications, so LEO satellite constellations provide an advantage over a geostationary satellite, where minimum theoretical latency 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.
Satellite constellation coverage and geometry – determining the minimum number of satellites needed to provide a service, and their orbits – is a field in itself.
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.
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