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Do Orbits Matter? Comparing LEO, MEO & GEO Satellites

NGSO Satellites
LEO, MEO and GEO satellites

If it feels like Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are suddenly everywhere you look, you’re not wrong! While Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites are here to stay, LEOs are taking flight in the rush to meet high market demand globally––especially in developing countries and remote rural areas that lack access to high-speed internet service. But how do they differ – both in terms of performance and economics?

To compare, we must first understand––at least at a high level––how the satellites operate. GEO satellites, like the Hughes JUPITER™ fleet, appear stationary above the Earth’s surface; ground-system antennas don’t have to turn or rotate to track the satellite’s changing position. GEO satellites offer high-capacity density at a very low cost per bit.

LEO and MEO satellites, on the other hand, like the OneWeb LEO constellation Hughes invested in, are smaller and closer to Earth, and able to orbit several times each day. LEO satellites provide worldwide coverage and are well suited for low latency applications.

To meet the demand for connectivity everywhere, interoperability―being able to leverage capacity from satellites in different orbits––is required. That’s why multi-orbit connectivity is a major focus for Hughes. We bring the transports, enabling technologies and managed services together––all integrated into solutions that serve our customers’ needs.

For example, we demonstrated GEO/MEO interoperability with SES, showing how roaming connectivity on a General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian aircraft can switch seamlessly between MEO and GEO satellites. Hughes has held other similar demonstrations with OneWeb to show interoperability between GEO and LEO, utilizing our ActiveTechnologies™ software for intelligent routing between transports.

When it comes to serving customer needs and calculating the total cost of ownership, many factors go into deciding whether a single or multi-orbit solution is best. For example, LEO makes sense for financial institutions that require real-time or near real-time transactions, whereas GEO is better suited for laying down a lot of capacity in hard-to-reach areas, such as delivering internet access to schools. For some applications and customers, like government and military missions that need robust, resilient communications, having a multi-orbit solution can make the most sense. Multi-orbit capabilities offer additional resiliency so that if one transport fails, you automatically have another to back it up.

So, the short answer is yes, orbits matter. Each type of transport matters in its own way and we need them all collectively to achieve true global connectivity and to support various applications. Since multi-orbit technologies and capabilities are still developing, we also need integrators, like Hughes, to continue focusing on hybrid network orchestration and solving the challenges associated with intelligent path routing. With each successful demonstration and roll-out, we move closer to the goal of matching applications to LEO, MEO and GEO capabilities and connecting everything and everyone.