Low-Earth Orbit Satellites

LEO satellite providers have lower latency—could the solution to the digital divide be closer than you think?

Dave Schafer
Jan 22, 2023
bullet9 min read

What are low-Earth orbit satellites, and how do they work?

Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are satellites that orbit the Earth at a height of 111–1,242 miles (180–2,000 km). This is significantly lower than geostationary orbit (GEO), which is a whopping 23,000+ miles from Earth. Although GEO has traditionally been the standard for communications satellites, LEO is becoming popular because of its reduced latency and the lower rocket power needed to launch them.

Because of their orbiting height, low-Earth orbit satellites work a bit differently than geostationary satellites. GEO satellites can cover huge areas with a single satellite due to their height, but LEO satellites have to be deployed in “constellations” that work together to provide coverage for larger areas.

Speaking of constellations, in the next section we’ll look at the major ISPs deploying LEO satellites today.

LEO satellite internet providers

Price
Speeds
Starlink$110/mo.Up to 250 Mbps
Project KuiperTo be announcedUp to 400 Mbps
Telesat LightspeedVaries—call for a quoteUp to 1.2 Gbps

Starlink satellite internet

Starlink is perhaps the most high-profile of the low-Earth orbit internet providers. Of the three major players, it’s the only one currently available to private users—the others are either unavailable or cater to enterprise markets.

Starlink offers fast speeds and unlimited data, both of which are a vast improvement over the standard satellite internet experience. That said, it also tends to be a bit pricey, and it’s not always easy to get.

Project Kuiper satellite internet

Project Kuiper is a new LEO satellite internet program currently being developed by Amazon. The company has plans to launch its initial prototype satellites in 2023, and it promises speedy and affordable internet to help bridge the digital divide.

Of course, the prototypes haven’t been launched yet, so the service remains unavailable. The company’s FCC license requires half its satellites to be launched by 2026, with the full constellation in place by 2029, so we expect to see it become available sometime between those dates.

Telesat Lightspeed satellite internet

Telesat has been in the satellite internet business for a long time—it dates all the way back to 1969. The company primarily provides satellite internet services for large enterprises, so it isn’t available to home consumers.

That said, Telesat’s new LEO satellite network, called Lightspeed, is poised to take work internet to a new level, with promises of exceptionally fast speeds and worldwide coverage. The network will consist of nearly 200 satellites orbiting around 620 miles above the Earth’s surface.

What is low-Earth orbit?

Low-Earth orbit is the closest orbit to the Earth’s surface out of the four orbital categories. You can compare low-Earth orbit with the other three orbits below:  

  • Low-Earth orbit: 111 to 1,242 miles from Earth
  • Medium-Earth orbit: 1,242 to 22,232 miles from Earth
  • High-Earth orbit (geostationary orbit): 22,236+ miles from Earth
  • Lunar orbit (moon): 238,607 miles from Earth

Note the significant difference between low-Earth orbit and the previously more popular geostationary orbit that Hughesnet satellite internet and Viasat satellite internet use.

What is low-Earth orbit used for?

Most of the world’s space missions have been to LEO, which is where the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope are located. However, communications satellites that deliver internet service have traditionally been much farther away, in high-Earth orbit, which is 23,000 miles (37,015 km) above sea level.

This is changing, however, with the introduction of LEO satellite constellations for internet service. Project Kuiper, Telesat, and especially Starlink are leading the way with these new satellites, which promise faster speeds and lower latency than GEO satellites.

Is low-Earth orbit new?

Low-Earth orbit isn’t new. The first satellites, like Sputnik, were all in LEO. Most objects orbiting Earth are located in LEO, including NOAA weather satellites, government satellites, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and more. But internet communication satellites are primarily located in high-Earth orbit (also known as geostationary orbit)—until now.

But while LEO isn’t new, the practicality of launching thousands of small satellites into LEO definitely is. It takes thousands of satellites in LEO to cover an area for internet service, so LEO hasn’t been very useful to ISPs in the past. However, recent advancements in rocket launch technology—along with the proliferation of private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin—have made access to affordable rocket launches easier than ever.

Satellite tracking with Leolabs Visualization

If you’re curious about LEO satellites (or just want to see something cool), Leolabs has an amazing tool that tracks all objects currently in low-Earth orbit. The Leolabs Visualization enables you to see the location of every satellite and piece of space debris currently in low-Earth orbit in real time. It’s quite stunning—there are a lot of objects spinning around our planet.

There are other tools as well, like OrbTrack and N2YO. These can be useful if you need something specific, like alerts when specific satellites pass over your location. However, none are quite as amazing as the LeoLabs tool.

Where is the ISS?

Another fun project is to track the location of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS zips around the Earth at nearly five miles per second, so having a tool handy to keep track of it can make observations much easier.

NASA provides its own tool for tracking the ISS, aptly named the Live Space Station Tracking Map. Of course, considering this is the ISS, there’s no shortage of other options for tracking the station. Nearly every skygazing app and website provides the location of the ISS, including the satellite trackers mentioned above. 

GEO vs. LEO: What is the difference between GEO and LEO satellites?

Low-Earth orbit satellites are more or less polar opposites of HEO satellites—they’re situated much closer to the Earth, and so speeds are generally faster and latency is lower.

However, the area covered by a single satellite is much smaller, and the satellites themselves can’t maintain a stationary orbit. This effectively means that a much larger number of satellites are needed to provide consistent coverage to any given area.

Internet communication satellites are often launched into high-Earth orbit (HEO) because satellites in HEO travel at the same speed as the Earth rotates. So the satellites essentially hover over the same place on Earth all the time, keeping them stationary and easier to maintain. Plus, high-Earth orbit is so far away from the Earth that a couple of HEO satellites can cover a whole continent.

Wonder how this works? Think of a flashlight shining on a globe. If it’s really close, it can offer more powerful light to a concentrated area. But as you move farther out, it will cover a bigger area with less powerful light.

The downside to communications satellites in a geostationary orbit is the time it takes for data to travel back and forth to Earth. Satellite internet signals travel fast, but they still cover a significant distance. This journey causes delays, latency, and slow data speeds for customers on Earth. It’s also more expensive to launch and maintain satellites so far away from Earth, although there don’t have to be as many satellites for internet coverage as LEO constellations.

The biggest changes to the satellite internet industry in years are unfolding right now, as companies start broadcasting internet signals from satellites located much closer to Earth in low-Earth orbit.

Exactly how close is LEO?

Although it’s called “low-Earth orbit,” the reality is that these satellites are still really high up—for LEO, anywhere from 100 to 1,000 miles. However, as far as that seems, it’s much closer than the traditional high-Earth orbit. Here are some common altitudes used by various objects to help you get a better feel for the distances we’re talking about.

  • 5–6 miles: Airplane cruising altitude (9–11 km)
  • 24 miles: Weather balloons (40 km)
  • 111–1,242 miles: Low-Earth orbit (180–2,000 km)
  • 203–360 miles: Starlink satellites (328–580 km)
  • 205–255 miles: International Space Station (330–410 km)
  • 339 miles: Hubble Space Telescope (547 km)
  • 621–1,242 miles: Van Allen Belt (1,000–2,000 km)
  • 1,242–22,232 miles: Medium-Earth orbit (2,000–35,780 km)
  • 12,551 miles: GPS satellites (operated by the US Space Force) (20,200 km)
  • 22,236+ miles: High-Earth/Geostationary orbit (35,785+ km)
  • 22,246 miles (approx.): Viasat and Hughesnet satellites (35,802 km)
  • 238,607 miles: Moon (384,000 km)

What is a satellite link budget?

In communications technology, a link budget is a rundown of all the gains and losses in power that a signal experiences as it travels to its destination. The budget tracks the signal from the transmitter, through its transit as radio waves, all the way to the receiver.

The purpose of the link budget is to ensure the signal has enough power to make it all the way to its destination without becoming too weak. This is especially important with satellite internet because the signal has to travel such tremendous distances.

Potential problems with LEO satellite internet

The closer satellites are to Earth, the smaller the area each satellite can cover and the faster objects need to travel to stay in orbit. Satellites located in low-Earth orbit zip around the Earth every 90 minutes. With satellites moving this quickly, it’s impossible to keep them hovering above one specific continent like you can with a geostationary orbit.

So, while a geostationary satellite constellation might need just a few satellites to blanket an entire continent with internet service, it’s more complicated with LEO satellites. Satellites in LEO are moving fast and zip in and out of range of ground receivers in just a few minutes.

Internet systems built with low-Earth orbiting satellites require a large network of satellites to keep people connected. In fact, this is why some experts are questioning the financial viability of LEO.1

In addition to the need for more satellites with LEO, the satellite dishes and home user terminals are also more complicated. Home satellite dishes need to track the movement of the satellites and be self-aiming since the ground receivers have to constantly switch from satellite to satellite, depending on which is closer. If the dishes weren’t self-aiming, people would have to manually realign them every few minutes.

Unfortunately, the additional features required for LEO satellite dishes means the home equipment is more expensive. For example, Starlink charges $499 for its equipment, which is almost double the price of Hughesnet or Viasat.

Final take: LEO satellites are good news for rural connectivity

Sending internet satellites into low-Earth orbit has started the new space race, and many companies are jumping into the action. It’s also sparked awareness of the digital divide and where we need to improve internet access. Some companies are getting directly involved with LEO, while others are finding other ways to improve internet access for rural residents. And one of the best about LEO is that it increases competition in the satellite internet space, which is always good news for consumers.

As we look into the future of rural internet and satellite connectivity, LEO could be the game changer.4 LEO constellations will bring faster internet speeds and wider availability than rural areas have ever had, which is nothing but good news to folks who love fresh air and wide open spaces.

Low-earth orbit FAQ

What are the 4 types of Earth orbit?

There are three different types of orbits used for satellites, based on altitude:

  • Low-earth orbit (LEO): LEO is between 111 and 1,242 miles from Earth. The International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope are in low-Earth orbit, as well as an increasing number of internet connectivity satellites.
  • Medium-Earth orbit (MEO): MEO is between 1,242 and 22,232 miles above Earth. It’s frequently used for GPS and navigation satellites.
  • High-Earth orbit (HEO), also known as geostationary orbit (GEO): High-Earth orbits are those above 22,236 miles. This includes geostationary orbit, where an object orbits at the same speed as the Earth rotates. If placed over the equator, these objects always remain at the same place relative to the Earth’s surface. HEO is often used for communications satellites, like satellite internet, as well as weather and solar monitoring satellites.

What is an example of a low-Earth orbit?

One of the most famous examples of an object in low-Earth orbit is the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits at a height of roughly 332 miles. Another famous LEO object is the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits about 254 miles above the Earth.

What is the difference between low-Earth orbit and medium-Earth orbit?

Low-Earth orbit covers a relatively narrow range of roughly 111 miles to 1,242 miles above the Earth’s surface. Medium-Earth orbit covers the entire range between low- and high-Earth orbit—1,243 miles up to 22,236 miles.

Both orbital ranges require more satellites for coverage than geostationary orbits do, but where LEO is being utilized for low-latency internet, MEO is used most commonly for GPS satellites.

Is the ISS in low-Earth orbit?

Yes, the International Space Station (ISS) is in low-Earth orbit. It orbits at an altitude of roughly 254 miles and completes a full orbit every 90 minutes.

Will space junk ever go away?

Space junk (all the debris we’ve left behind in orbit) is a legitimate problem—there’s a lot of it, and it can damage or destroy nearby satellites. While some of this junk will eventually fall back to Earth, it takes a long time—a satellite 750 miles above Earth can take up to 2,000 years to fall back to the planet.2

For this reason, satellite operators are urged to properly dispose of their obsolete satellites. This can be done by directing the satellite close enough to the atmosphere to cause it to re-enter—typically satellites burn up in the atmosphere long before reaching the ground.

Do satellites eventually fall back to Earth?

Yes, satellites eventually fall back to Earth, provided they orbit close enough. However, it can take a long time. Low-Earth orbit satellites can take hundreds or even thousands of years to be pulled back into the atmosphere, while satellites in geostationary orbit can remain there indefinitely.

Which is the No. 1 space company in the world?

It’s hard to name a single “best” space company. The private space industry is exploding right now, and a number of companies are vying for the top spot. But some of the main contenders are SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.

Sources

  1. Marek, Sue, “Marek’s Take: Will LEO Satellite Systems Be Able to Bridge the Digital Divide?” Accessed January 11, 2023.
  2. Atkinson, Nancy, “How Long Will Space Junk Take to Burn Up? Here’s a Handy Chart,” February 2021. Accessed January 11, 2023.
Dave Schafer
Written by
Dave Schafer
Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at HighSpeedInternet.com get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).