What is a low-Earth orbit satellite?
A low-Earth orbit satellite (sometimes abbreviated to LEO satellite) is a satellite that travels in orbit 1,200 miles above the Earth or less. Although low-Earth orbit satellites have been in use since 1957—beginning with the launch of low-Earth orbit Sputnik and progressing to the International Space Station—they have only recently been employed for satellite internet service, thanks to advanced technology from SpaceX. (1)
Previously only geostationary satellites (larger satellites that orbit 22,000 miles above Earth) were used to provide satellite internet service, which is created by satellites beaming an internet signal from space. Geostationary satellites provide nationwide coverage but offer slow speeds and expensive data. Using low-Earth orbit satellites for internet services not only reduces latency, but also opens the floodgates for faster satellite internet speeds and unlimited data.
In this article, we’ll cover what the use of low-Earth orbit satellites means for satellite internet service and how they bring faster speeds and lower latency. We’ll also cover the risk of relying on low-Earth orbit satellites and why geostationary satellites are still here to stay.
Low-Earth orbit vs. geostationary satellites
Up until the launch of Starlink, geostationary satellites were the only type of satellite used for satellite internet. They are also used by satellite TV providers DISH and DIRECTV. Geostationary satellites orbit over 22,000 miles above the Earth compared to the less than 400 miles above the Earth where most Starlink satellites travel.
Because geostationary satellites are farther away from the earth, they can travel at a slower speed and still match the Earth’s rotation, which means they essentially stay in the same spot in the sky. This makes it easy to send a consistent signal down to Earth from the same satellite. Low-Earth satellites orbit the Earth multiple times per day, which means they have to pass the signal between them, which can lead to dropped signals or gaps in coverage.
Geostationary satellites are also much larger than low-Earth orbit satellites and last for much longer. Low-Earth orbit satellites from Starlink last up to five years, while geostationary satellites from providers like Viasat last 15 years. Viasat’s geostationary network also requires significantly fewer satellites to achieve global coverage (4 satellites compared to Starlink’s requested 42,000). (2)
This has been the main factor preventing low-Earth orbit satellite internet from becoming an option until now: it simply costs too much to maintain a huge satellite network that needs replacements every five years (or sooner). But with SpaceX’s unique rocket launching technology, the cost to get that many satellites into space is severely reduced, which is the only reason a project with these ambitions is feasible. With Amazon scheduled to launch its first two Project Kuiper satellites in early 2023, it will be interesting to see how a competitor addresses the challenges of getting thousands of satellites into space without access to SpaceX systems. (3)
Although Starlink has promised potential low-Earth orbit satellite internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, they’re currently topping out at 150 Mbps. And with the launch of Viasat’s latest geostationary satellite, Viasat has now upped its top speed from 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps. Starlink does still have Viasat beat in terms of latency and unlimited data. But some argue that the volatility and vulnerability of Starlink’s network makes the consistent experience you get from Viasat worth experiencing more latency and paying more for data.
Looking for a satellite internet provider? See how the top satellite ISPs compare.
Which satellite providers use low-Earth orbit satellites?
|Satellite internet provider||Satellite type|
|Project Kuiper||Low-Earth orbit|
Low-Earth orbit satellites pros and cons
- Shorter distances from Earth allow for lower latency.
- Optical space lasers can potentially eliminate the need for transmitting data through ground stations, which could enable truly global coverage.
- Residential satellite internet speeds up to 150 Mbps and business speeds up to 220 Mbps (and these speeds will likely only get faster). Viasat, a geostationary provider, offers select residential plans up to 150 Mbps but HughesNet tops out at 25 Mbps.
- Shorter travel distance to satellites enables unlimited data.
- Internet service can be used during natural disasters or conflicts when other communication infrastructure is down.
- Nationwide and global coverage requires thousands of smaller satellites.
- Satellites last only 5 years and then burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, which could trigger unforeseen environmental effects. (2)
- Astronomers worry about satellites interfering with space observations Increased low-Earth orbit collision risk with other satellites and spacecraft
- More subject to destruction via geomagnetic storms
Using low-Earth orbit satellites to provide internet service has many potential benefits for society. However, those benefits come with a host of untested concerns that could bring lasting, global consequences. One troubling aspect of LEO satellite technology is that scientists have concerns with just the current Starlink network, which is only a third as large as it plans to be. (2) That’s to say nothing of competitors that are waiting in the wings with similar business models, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper. The sudden influx of low-Earth orbit satellites is nothing like we’ve ever tested in space before, and the proximity to Earth’s atmosphere could prove toxic.
Aaron C. Boley, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, was quoted saying the following in a Space.com article:
"Humans are exceptionally good at underestimating our ability to change the environment. There is this perception that there is no way that we can dump enough plastic into the ocean to make a difference. There is no way we can dump enough carbon into the atmosphere to make a difference. But here we are. We have a plastic pollution problem with the ocean, we have climate change ongoing as a result of our actions and our changing of the composition of the atmosphere and we are poised to make the same type of mistake by our use of space."
Currently, it’s hard to see how true these types of predictions will be. We’re in the honeymoon period of low-Earth orbit satellites used for internet service, where people are experiencing all the benefits that come from a fast internet connection that’s available almost anywhere. But as these technologies continue to develop, the true cost of such convenience and connectivity will surely make itself known.
Even if you live in a rural area, it might not be your only option. Check out our best satellite internet alternatives.
That said, the potential of a global low-Earth orbit satellite internet network is hard to ignore. Not only would it enable huge portions of the global population to access broadband internet speeds when they previously never even had an internet connection, but it also unlocks new applications for emergency responders and other workers who frequently deal with remote environments.
Additionally, in August 2022, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced their intention to collaborate on a future global cellular network. (4) This means we could see a future world where there is no escaping cell service, no matter what kind of road trip or camping trip you’re on. From an emergency perspective, this is unquestionably good news. But from a peace of mind perspective, the jury is out. We’ll let you decide whether or not this is a future to get excited about.
Frequently asked questions about low-Earth orbit satellites
How many satellites are in low-Earth orbit?
There are currently 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites just from Starlink alone, which is to say nothing of the thousands of satellites already in low-Earth orbit. It’s difficult to nail down the exact number of low-Earth orbit satellites currently, but we do know that they include notable mentions such as the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.
Can you see low-Earth orbit satellites?
You can see low-Earth orbit satellites, depending on which phase of their journey they’re in. Spotting a Starlink low-Earth orbit satellite is particularly exciting because the satellites travel in trains (sometimes called satellite constellations), which look like strings of light (or UFOs) in the night sky. If you want to track when and where you can see a Starlink train, you can use Find Starlink.
Why do low-Earth orbit satellites fall?
Low-Earth orbit satellites fall when they have either reached the end of their lifespan or when they’ve experienced some kind of technical difficulty or space weather interference. For example, Starlink low-Earth orbit satellites fall and burn up in the atmosphere once they’ve been in use for about five years. But Starlink also lost 40 new low-Earth orbit satellites to a geomagnetic solar storm. (5)
Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.
Endnotes and sources
- “Sputnik 1,” NASA. Accessed January 12, 2023.
- “Starlink satellites: everything you need to know about the controversial internet megaconstellation,” Space.com. Accessed January 12, 2023.
- “Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to launch prototype satellites in early 2023,” ZDNET. Accessed January 12, 2023.
- “SpaceX invites world’s carriers to collaborate—no more cell phone dead zones,” SpaceX Updates. Accessed January 11, 2023.
- “Solar storm destroys 40 new SpaceX satellites in orbit,” New York Times. Accessed January 12, 2023.