Geostationary Satellite Declinations

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2020-06-25 19:05:50

A few years ago, I was doing some telescope sweeping of the meridian sky around declination -6˚ when, to my surprise and delight, a 10th- or 11th-magnitude slow-moving object entered my field of view. As it slowly traversed eastward through the field, I remembered the declination I was pointed to and realized that it must be a geostationary, or at least a geosynchronous, satellite. Centering the moving object and then turning off the telescope’s clock drive confirmed my suspicions. The object was a geosynchronous satellite because it appeared to lay motionless while all the stars in the field drifted toward the west. Serendipity is the spice of life!

Satellites stationed in orbits that are always directly above the Earth’s equator and that have an orbital period of 23h 56m 04.0905s (one sidereal day) have the interesting property of remaining stationary as seen from any point on the surface of the Earth. This property of geostationary satellites, as they are called, is used to great advantage by many communications and weather satellites. There are currently at least 554 satellites in geosynchronous orbits. They are stationed all around the Earth at various longitudes.

At what altitude do geostationary satellites orbit the Earth? It is well above human-occupied spacecraft like the International Space Station which currently orbits 260 miles above the Earth’s surface. Geosynchronous orbit lies some 22,236 miles above the Earth’s equator. This is quite a ways out, as the entire Earth subtends an angle of only 17° 12′ at this distance—about the same as the angular distance between Capella (α Aur) and Elnath (β Tau).

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