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What is a Medium Earth Orbit Satellite?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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A medium earth orbit satellite (MEO) is a satellite that orbits the earth in between Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEO), which orbit the earth at a distance from the earth of about 200-930 miles (321.87-1496.69 km) and those satellites which orbit the earth at geostationary orbit, about 22,300 miles (35,888.71 km) above earth. Each type of satellite can provide a different type of coverage for communications and wireless devices. Like LEOs, these satellites don’t maintain a stationary distance from the earth. This is in contrast to the geostationary orbit, where satellites are always approximately 22,300 miles from the earth.

Any satellite that orbits the earth between about 1000-22,000 miles (1609.34- 35,405.57 km) above earth is an MEO. Typically the orbit of a medium earth orbit satellite is about 10,000 miles (16,093.44 km) above earth. In various patterns, these satellites make the trip around earth in anywhere from 2-12 hours, which provides better coverage to wider areas than that provided by LEOs.

In 1962, the first communications satellite, Telstar, was launched. It was a medium earth orbit satellite designed to help facilitate high-speed telephone signals, but scientists soon learned what some of the problematic aspects were of a single MEO in space. It only provided transatlantic telephone signals for 20 minutes of each approximately 2.5 hours orbit. It was apparent that multiple MEOs needed to be used in order to provide continuous coverage.

Since then numerous companies have launched both LEOs and MEOs. You need about two dozen LEOs to provide continuous coverage and fewer MEOs. However, LEOs typically orbit in a circular pattern around the equator. A medium earth orbit satellite may have a variety of different orbits, including elliptical ones and may provide better overall coverage of satellite communications, if enough of them are in place and the orbit is swift. The coverage of earth is called a footprint, and MEOs typically are able to create a larger footprint because of their different orbital patterns, and because they are higher than LEOs.

Today the medium earth orbit satellite is most commonly used in navigation systems around the world. These include Global Positioning System (GPS), and the Russian Glonass. A proposed MEO navigation system for the European Union called Galileo is expected to begin operations in 2013.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllTheScience contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By bythewell — On May 26, 2013

@browncoat - That might be true for now, but I wonder how long it will stay that way. We've only been creating satellites for a short period and we're only just starting to see their potential. I hope there doesn't come the day when children will look at the night sky and see far more satellites than stars in it.

I think if they manage to create very multi-functional satellite designs and regulate their use we can prevent this kind of thing, because a few thousand satellites will be able to do all the things that we need from that kind of placement.

But space debris is already becoming a problem and since nothing decays in space, I can see our descendants one day needing to start clearing up all the junk we've left up there, satellites and all.

By browncoat — On May 26, 2013

@anon335436 - I know 3000 satellites sounds like a lot, but it is extremely tiny, as you can see for yourself by looking at a clear sky at night. You might be able to spot maybe a half dozen satellites if you stay out there long enough. We don't really ever think about how enormous the Earth actually is, because we can fly from one end to the other in 24 hours or less now.

But it is enormous and the satellites aren't very big. 3000 is only a drop in the ocean that is the sky.

By MrsPramm — On May 25, 2013

@anon335436 - I very much doubt that satellites have anything to do with the weather. If you look at the picture attached to this article, you can see how very far away it is, well out of the Earth's atmosphere which is where weather is generated and influenced.

Extreme weather is something that happens naturally anyway, and it is also something that was predicted to increase decades ago by climate scientists who were studying climate change. Global warming is a bit of a misnomer, because most of the world isn't going to be concerned with the heat so much as with the extreme weather, and, if anything, the fact that we have satellites that can't be affected by that weather makes us safer.

By anon335436 — On May 20, 2013

Is extreme weather caused by interaction between earth's gravity and the 3,000 satellites in the above atmosphere.

By anon24351 — On Jan 11, 2009

Calculate the speed at which an object (200 miles above the equator) in geosynchronous orbit around the earth would be traveling.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllTheScience contributor, Tricia...
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