Since more than 1,000 satellites are presently in orbit, identifying and maintaining contact requires precise tracking methods. Optical and radar tracking are most valuable during the launch; radio tracking is used once the satellite has achieved a stable orbit. Optical tracking uses special cameras to follow satellites illuminated either by the sun or laser beams. Radar tracking directs a pulse of microwaves at the satellite, and the reflected echo identifies both its direction and distance. Nearly all satellites carry radio transmitters that broadcast their positions to tracking antennas on the earth. In addition, the transmitters are used for telemetry, the relaying of information from the scientific instruments aboard the satellite.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.