Satellites orbit the Earth, doing our bidding in ways that enrich the lives of almost all of us. Through electronic eyes from hundreds of miles overhead, they lead prospectors to mineral deposits invisible on Earth’s surface. Relaying communications at the speed of light, they shrink the planet until its most distant people are only a split second apart. They beam world weather to our living room TVs and guide ships through storms.
Swooping low over areas of possible hostility, spies in the sky maintain surveillance that helps keep peace in a volatile world. How many objects are orbiting out there? Today’s count is 4,914. The satellites begin with a launch, which in the U.S.
Takes place at Cape Canaveral in Florida, NASA’s Wallops Flight Center in Virginia, or for polar orbiters, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. One out of every 20 satellites is crippled by the jolt of lift-off, dies in the inferno of a defective rocket blast, or is thrust into an improper orbit. A few simply vanish into the immensity of space. When a satellite emerges from the rocket’s protective shroud, radio telemetry regularly reports on its health to round-the-clock crews of ground controllers. They watch over the temperatures and voltages of the craft’s electronic nervous system and other vital organs,” always critical with machines whose sunward side may be 300 degrees hotter than the shaded part.
Once a satellite achieves orbit, that delicate condition in which the pull of Earth’s gravity is matched by the outward fling of the craft’s speed, subtle pressures can make it go astray. Solar flares can cause the satellite to go out of orbit, and wisps of outer atmosphere can drag its speed. Like strands of spiderweb, gravity fields of the Earth, moon, and sun tug at the orbiting spacefarer. Even the sunshine’s soft caress exerts a gentle nudge. If a satellite begins to wander, ground crews fire small fuel jets to steer it back on course.
This is done sparingly, as exhaustion of these gases ends a craft’s useful career. Under such stresses, many satellites last only 2 years. When death is only a second away, controllers may command the craft to jump into a high orbit, so it will move up away from Earth, keeping orbital paths from becoming too cluttered. Others become ensnared in the gravity web, slowly being drawn into gravitational forces that serve as space graveyards. A satellite for communications would be a great antenna tower, hundreds or even thousands of miles above the Earth, capable of transmitting messages almost instantaneously across oceans and continents.
Soon after the launch of ATWS-6, the Teacher in the Sky,” a satellite designed to aid people, NASA ground controllers trained its antenna on Appalachia. There, evening college classes were brought to schoolteachers whose isolation denied them opportunities for advancement. The use of satellites is growing rapidly, and so are the different jobs for them.