Not so long ago, satellites were exotic, top-secret devices. They were used primarily in a military capacity, for activities such as navigation and espionage. Now they are an essential part of our daily lives. We see and recognize their use in weather reports, television transmission by DIRECTV and the DISH Network, and everyday telephone calls. In many other instances, satellites play a background role that escapes our notice:

  • Some newspapers and magazines are more timely because they transmit their text and images to multiple printing sites via satellite to speed local distribution.
  • Before sending signals down the wire into our houses, cable television depends on satellites to distribute its transmissions.
  • The most reliable taxi and limousine drivers are sometimes using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) to take us to the proper destination.


Photo courtesy NASA
NAVSTAR GPS satellite

  • The goods we buy often reach distributors and retailers more efficiently and safely because trucking firms track the progress of their vehicles with the same GPS. Sometimes firms will even tell their drivers that they are driving too fast.
  • Emergency radio beacons from downed aircraft and distressed ships may reach search-and-rescue teams when satellites relay the signal (read this page for details).

In this article, we will show you how satellites operate and what they do. You'll get to see what's inside a satellite, explore the different kinds of orbits and find out why the intended use of the satellite affects the choice of orbit. We'll even tell you how to see and track a satellite yourself!