As a former research meteorologist at NASA, I could keep a log book of how many times people asked me one of the following questions:
- Did you forecast for space shuttle launches? (No)
- Did you work at Kennedy Space Center? (No)
- Did you know any astronauts? (Yes, a few)
- Why did NASA go away? (It didn’t but people thought so because they stopped launching space shuttles)
I often reflect on how NASA’s mission is misunderstood or misrepresented by perceptions. Many people might be surprised to learn that NASA has a robust Earth Sciences Division that uses the vantage point of space to improve understanding of our planet. I periodically use my platform in Forbes to shatter misperceptions or increase literacy. After receiving one of those questions recently, it prompted a thought about whether people know the numerous ways satellites are a part of their daily lives. Here are six of them.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS). GPS is used by almost anyone that has a modern smartphone or a navigation system in their car. For a basic definition of GPS, the NOAA Ocean Service website is useful:
GPS is a three-part system: satellites, ground stations, and receivers. Satellites act like the stars in constellations—we know where they are supposed to be at any given time. The ground stations monitor and control the satellites, and they help determine their locations—both where they were and where they are forecast to be. A receiver, like you might find in your phone or in your car, is constantly listening for signals from these satellites, which can be used like a giant tape measure between the receiver and satellites.
When the receiver gets information from at least 4 satellites in the constellation, your precise location can determined. There are more than 30 GPS navigation satellites in orbit at roughly 12,000 miles above the Earth. I actually explained to my kids that only a few years ago we actually had to call someone, use a map or write down directions to get somewhere.
Satellite Radio or Television. If you have satellite television or radio services, signals transmitting Game of Thrones or First Wave are coming from a satellite in a geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above the Earth. At that altitude, the satellite is essentially positioned over the same location at all times. In other words, it is “geosynchronous or geostationary.” Many satellites are in lower altitude orbits but only pass across the same point on the Earth periodically. That certainly wouldn’t work if you are trying to watch the big game. In fairness, this one probably doesn’t perfectly match the title of the article. I have a hunch that most people figured out that “satellite” TV or radio is coming from a “satellite.”
Weather forecasts. One of the most important daily applications of satellites is in weather analysis and forecasting. Polar-0rbiting and geosynchronous satellites provide critical information to forecasters. Geosynchronous satellites keep watch over rapidly evolving storm systems, hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic ash plumes, and jet stream patterns. Polar-orbiting satellites provide detailed information on temperature, humidity, and other weather information to be ingested into numerical weather prediction models. My previous Forbes have described the new generation of U.S. polar orbiting satellites (JPSS) and the current geosynchronous satellites (GOES).
ATM Withdrawals. If you remember the aforementioned discussion about GPS, then you will have a better appreciation of your next ATM transaction. GPS is also a very precise orbiting clock system. Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin made the following point in a 2017 Quartz article written by Tim Fernholz:
When we talk about economic infrastructure, I don’t think the general public realizes the extent to which the Global Positioning System’s timing signal is critical for these ATM transactions and every other point-of-sale transaction conducted in the United States and throughout most of the world
Griffin went on to point out how vulnerable ATMs, check transactions, credit authorizations, cellphone communication, and the electrical grid are to a compromised GPS network or a major outage.
In-Flight Convenience. If you had a long flight today, there is a good chance that you may browsed the Internet or watched a movie. Many in-flight systems and other aviation communications rely on satellite transmissions.
Phone and broadband service. Satellite phones have been widely used for international communication, particularly in remote locations. However, many people in rural communities here in the United States rely on satellites for broadband Internet or phone service. According to an article in The Conversation, “Satellite broadband and fixed wireless are used mostly in rural areas, but account for less than 3 percent of the U.S. fixed broadband market.”
Take a moment to reflect on how many of these you have used today.