Medium Earth orbit

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Orbit size comparison of GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou-2, and Iridium constellations, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and geostationary orbit (and its graveyard orbit), with the Van Allen radiation belts and the Earth to scale.
The Moon's orbit is around 9 times as large as geostationary orbit. (In the SVG file, hover over an orbit or its label to highlight it; click to load its article.) Comparison satellite navigation orbits.svg
Orbit size comparison of GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou-2, and Iridium constellations, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and geostationary orbit (and its graveyard orbit), with the Van Allen radiation belts and the Earth to scale.
The Moon's orbit is around 9 times as large as geostationary orbit. (In the SVG file, hover over an orbit or its label to highlight it; click to load its article.)
To-scale diagram of low, medium, and high Earth orbits Orbitalaltitudes.jpg
To-scale diagram of low, medium, and high Earth orbits

A medium Earth orbit (MEO) is an Earth-centred orbit with an altitude above a low Earth orbit (LEO) and below a high Earth orbit (HEO) – between 2,000 and 35,786 km (1,243 and 22,236 mi) above sea level. [1]


The boundary between MEO and LEO is an arbitrary altitude chosen by accepted convention, whereas the boundary between MEO and HEO is the particular altitude of a geosynchronous orbit, in which a satellite takes 24 hours to circle the Earth, the same period as the Earth’s own rotation. All satellites in MEO have an orbital period of less than 24 hours, with the minimum period (for a circular orbit at the lowest MEO altitude) about 2 hours. [2]

Satellites in MEO orbits are perturbed by solar radiation pressure, which is the dominating non-gravitational perturbing force. [3] Other perturbing forces include: Earth's albedo, navigation antenna thrust, and thermal effects related to heat re-radiation.

The MEO region includes the two zones of energetic charged particles above the equator known as the Van Allen radiation belts, which can damage satellites’ electronic systems without special shielding. [4]

A medium Earth orbit is sometimes called mid Earth orbit [1] or intermediate circular orbit (ICO). [2]

Use of MEO

Two medium Earth orbits are particularly significant. A satellite in the semi-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 20,200 kilometres (12,600 mi) has an orbital period of 12 hours and passes over the same two spots on the equator every day. [1] This reliably predictable orbit is used by the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation. [2] Other navigation satellite systems use similar medium Earth orbits including GLONASS (with an altitude of 19,100 kilometres, 11,900 mi), [5] Galileo (with an altitude of 23,222 kilometres, 14,429 mi) [6] and BeiDou (with an altitude of 21,528 kilometres, 13,377 mi). [7]

The Molniya orbit has a high inclination of 63.4° and high eccentricity of 0.722 with a period of 12 hours, so a satellite spends most of its orbit above the chosen area in high latitudes. This orbit was used by the (now defunct) North American Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio satellites and the Russian Molniya military communications satellites, after which it is named. [1]

Communications satellites in MEO include the O3b and forthcoming O3b mPOWER constellations for telecommunications and data backhaul to maritime, aero and remote locations (with an altitude of 8,063 kilometres, 5,010 mi). [8]

Communications satellites to cover the North and South Pole are also put in MEO. [9]

Telstar 1, an experimental communications satellite launched in 1962, orbited in MEO. [10]

See also


  1. Orbital periods and speeds are calculated using the relations 4π2R3 = T2GM and V2R = GM, where R is the radius of orbit in metres; T is the orbital period in seconds; V is the orbital speed in m/s; G is the gravitational constant, approximately 6.673×10−11 Nm2/kg2; M is the mass of Earth, approximately 5.98×1024 kg (1.318×1025 lb).
  2. Approximately 8.6 times (in radius and length) when the Moon is nearest (that is, 363,104 km/42,164 km), to 9.6 times when the Moon is farthest (that is, 405,696 km/42,164 km).

Related Research Articles

Satellite Human-made object put into an orbit

In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an object that has been intentionally placed into orbit. These objects are called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth's Moon.

Communications satellite Artificial satellite that relays radio signals

A communications satellite is an artificial satellite that relays and amplifies radio telecommunication signals via a transponder; it creates a communication channel between a source transmitter and a receiver at different locations on Earth. Communications satellites are used for television, telephone, radio, internet, and military applications. As of 1 January 2021, there are 2,224 communications satellites in Earth orbit. Most communications satellites are in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the equator, so that the satellite appears stationary at the same point in the sky; therefore the satellite dish antennas of ground stations can be aimed permanently at that spot and do not have to move to track the satellite.

GLONASS Russian satellite navigation system

GLONASS is a Russian space-based satellite navigation system operating as part of a radionavigation-satellite service. It provides an alternative to GPS and is the second navigational system in operation with global coverage and of comparable precision.

Low Earth orbit Orbit around Earth with an altitude between 160 and 2,000 km

A low Earth orbit (LEO) is an Earth-centered orbit near the planet, often specified as having a period of 128 minutes or less and an eccentricity less than 0.25. Most of the artificial objects in outer space are in LEO, with an altitude never more than about one-third of the radius of Earth.

Satellite constellation Group of artificial satellites working together as a system

A satellite constellation is a group of artificial satellites working together as a system. Unlike a single satellite, a constellation can provide permanent global or near-global coverage, such that at any time everywhere on Earth at least one satellite is visible. Satellites are typically placed in sets of complementary orbital planes and connect to globally distributed ground stations. They may also use inter-satellite communication.

Geostationary transfer orbit

A geosynchronous transfer orbit or geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) is a type of geocentric orbit. Satellites that are destined for geosynchronous (GSO) or geostationary orbit (GEO) are (almost) always put into a GTO as an intermediate step for reaching their final orbit.

BeiDou Chinese satellite navigation system

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System is a Chinese satellite navigation system. It consists of two separate satellite constellations. The first BeiDou system, officially called the BeiDou Satellite Navigation Experimental System and also known as BeiDou-1, consisted of three satellites which, beginning in 2000, offered limited coverage and navigation services, mainly for users in China and neighboring regions. BeiDou-1 was decommissioned at the end of 2012. On 23 June 2020, the final BeiDou satellite was successfully launched, the launch of the 55th satellite in the Beidou family. The third iteration of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System provides for global coverage for timing and navigation, offering an alternative to Russia's GLONASS, the European Galileo positioning system, and America's GPS.

A geocentric orbit or Earth orbit involves any object orbiting Earth, such as the Moon or artificial satellites. In 1997, NASA estimated there were approximately 2,465 artificial satellite payloads orbiting Earth and 6,216 pieces of space debris as tracked by the Goddard Space Flight Center. More than 16,291 objects previously launched have undergone orbital decay and entered Earth's atmosphere.

Molniya orbit Type of high-latitude satellite orbit

A Molniya orbit is a type of satellite orbit designed to provide communications and remote sensing coverage over high latitudes. It is a highly elliptical orbit with an inclination of 63.4 degrees, an argument of perigee of 270 degrees, and an orbital period of approximately half a sidereal day. The name comes from the Molniya satellites, a series of Soviet/Russian civilian and military communications satellites which have used this type of orbit since the mid-1960s.

Highly elliptical orbit

A highly elliptical orbit (HEO) is an elliptic orbit with high eccentricity, usually referring to one around Earth. Examples of inclined HEO orbits include Molniya orbits, named after the Molniya Soviet communication satellites which used them, and Tundra orbits.

Satellite navigation Use of satellite signals for geo-spatial positioning

A satellite navigation or satnav system is a system that uses satellites to provide autonomous geo-spatial positioning. It allows small electronic receivers to determine their location to high precision using time signals transmitted along a line of sight by radio from satellites. The system can be used for providing position, navigation or for tracking the position of something fitted with a receiver. The signals also allow the electronic receiver to calculate the current local time to high precision, which allows time synchronisation. These uses are collectively known as Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT). Satnav systems operate independently of any telephonic or internet reception, though these technologies can enhance the usefulness of the positioning information generated.

GIOVE, or Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element, is the name for two satellites built for the European Space Agency (ESA) to test technology in orbit for the Galileo positioning system.

A supersynchronous orbit is either an orbit with a period greater than that of a synchronous orbit, or just an orbit whose apoapsis is higher than that of a synchronous orbit. A synchronous orbit has a period equal to the rotational period of the body which contains the barycenter of the orbit.

Tundra orbit Highly elliptical and highly inclined synchronous orbit

A Tundra orbit is a highly elliptical geosynchronous orbit with a high inclination, an orbital period of one sidereal day, and a typical eccentricity between 0.2 and 0.3. A satellite placed in this orbit spends most of its time over a chosen area of the Earth, a phenomenon known as apogee dwell, which makes them particularly well suited for communications satellites serving high-latitude regions. The ground track of a satellite in a Tundra orbit is a closed figure 8 with a smaller loop over either the northern or southern hemisphere. This differentiates them from Molniya orbits designed to service high-latitude regions, which have the same inclination but half the period and do not loiter over a single region.

Meridian 1, also known as Meridian No.11L, was a Russian communications satellite. It was the first satellite to be launched as part of the Meridian system, which will replace the older Molniya series.

Spacecraft collision avoidance is the implementation and study of processes minimizing the chance of orbiting spacecraft inadvertently colliding with other orbiting objects. The most common subject of spacecraft collision avoidance research and development is for human-made satellites in geocentric orbits. The subject includes procedures designed to prevent the accumulation of space debris in orbit, analytical methods for predicting likely collisions, and avoidance procedures to maneuver offending spacecraft away from danger.

Meridian 2, also known as Meridian No.12L, was a Russian communications satellite. It was the second satellite of the Meridian system, which replaced the older Molniya series. It followed on from Meridian 1, which was launched in December 2006.


GPS Block IIF, or GPS IIF is an interim class of GPS (satellite), which are used to keep the Navstar Global Positioning System operational until the GPS Block IIIA satellites become operational. They were built by Boeing, to be operated by the United States Air Force being launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA), using Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV). They are the final component of the Block II GPS constellation to be launched. On 5 February 2016, the final satellite in the GPS Block IIF was successfully launched, completing the block.


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  3. Bury, Grzegorz; Sośnica, Krzysztof; Zajdel, Radosław; Strugarek, Dariusz (February 2020). "Toward the 1-cm Galileo orbits: challenges in modeling of perturbing forces". Journal of Geodesy. 94 (2): 16. Bibcode:2020JGeod..94...16B. doi: 10.1007/s00190-020-01342-2 .
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  7. BeiDou Navigation Satellite System Signal In Space. China Satellite Navigation Office. December 2013. Access 2 May 2021.
  8. O3b satellites.
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  10. "Medium Earth Orbit". Internet in the Sky. Archived from the original on 2017-06-09. Retrieved 2007-01-04.