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.
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)