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Satellite Communication

The main function of the antennas used in satellite communication systems is to compensate for the loss of signal strength that occurs when a signal is transmitted from the ground to a satellite (and vice versa).

Antennas are used on the ground to transmit signals to the satellite and to receive Signals from the satellite. Antennas are also used on board the satellite to collect the weak signals from the ground and to re-transmit them back towards the earth. The general principles of operation of the satellite antennas and ground-based antennas are the same.

However, the satellite antennas are typically more complex because they need to survive the harsh environment of space. Ground antennas vary in size from the very small antennas that are used to receive television broadcasts in the home to several tens of metres for the largest professional installations.

The antennas on board the satellite are typically limited in size to around 2 - 3 m by the space that is available on the satellite structure. The sizes of the satellite antennas, the ground-based transmitting antenna and the groundbased receiving antenna are carefully chosen by the system designer to match a particular service.

For example, a 70 cm antenna may be sufficient for direct reception of satellite TV programmes in the home, but would not be suitable for, say, transmitting programmes between television studios.

Satellite antenna
- Overview, of the typical RF antenna design types used with satellites, both on the ground and on the satellite. This includes satellite television (tv) reception.

A variety of forms of antenna can be used for transmitting to and receiving from satellites. The most common type of satellite antenna is the parabolic reflector, however this is not the only type of antenna that can be used. The actual type of antenna will depend upon what the overall application and the requirements.


Antenna gain

The distances over which signals travel to some satellites is very large. Geostationary ones are a particular case. This means that path losses are high and accordingly signal levels are low. In addition to this the power levels that can be transmitted by satellites are limited by the fact that all the power has be generated from solar panels. As a result the antennas that are used are often high gain directional varieties. The parabolic reflector is one of the most popular.


Antennas on satellites

Although there is fundamentally no difference between the antennas on satellites and those on the ground there are a number of different requirements that need to be taken into account. In the first instance the environmental conditions are very different. As conditions in space are particularly harsh the antennas need to be built to withstand this. Temperatures vary considerably between light and dark and this will cause expansion and contraction. The materials that are sued in the conduction need to be carefully chosen. The gain and directivity of the antenna need to be chosen to meet the needs of the satellite. For most geostationary satellites the use of directional antennas with gain is mandatory in view of the path losses incurred. These satellites are more likely to cover a give area of the Earth, and as they remain in the same position this is normally not a problem. However the attitude of the satellite and its antenna must be carefully maintained to ensure the antenna is aligned in the correct direction. The antennas on board the satellite are typically limited in size to around 2 - 3 metres by the space that is available on the satellite structure. For satellites in low earth orbits, considerably less directive antennas are normally used. Signals are likely to be received and transmitted over a much wider angle, and these will change as the satellites move. Accordingly these satellites seldom use parabolic reflector antennas.


Ground antennas

Ground antennas used for receing satellite signals and transmitting to the satellites vary considerably according to their application. Again parabolic reflectors are the most widely used, but Yagi antennas may be used on occasions. The size of the antennas may vary considerably. The parabolic reflectors used for satellite television reception are very small. However those used for professional applications are much larger and may range up to several tens of metres in size. The satellite antennas are carefully chosen by the system designer to match the particular requirements. It is possible to calculate the exact specification for the antenna, knowing the path loss, signal to noise ratio, transmitter power levels, receiver sensitivities, etc. A small 70 centimetre antenna may be sufficient for direct reception of satellite TV programmes but would not be suitable for transmitting programmes up to the satellite where a much higher signal level is required to ensure the best possible picture is radiated back to Earth.


Satellite television antennas

It has already been mentioned that satellite television antennas use parabolic reflector or "dish" antennas. They are also incorporate what is termed an LNB. This is a Low Noise Block converter. The satellite transmits signals at frequencies between 12.2 and 12.7 GHz. Signals at these frequencies would be very quickly attenuated by any coaxial feeder that was used. As feeder lengths may run into several metres or more in many installations, this would mean that the signals that reached the television would be very weak. To overcome this problem the LNB is installed at the feed point of the antenna. Its job is two fold. It amplifies the signal, but more importantly it converts it down to a frequency (usually 950 to 1450MHz) where the loss introduced by the coaxial feeder is considerably less. The amplification provided by the LNB also enables the loss introduced by the cable to be less critical. By performing these two functions it means that domestic coaxial cable can be used satisfactorily, while maintaining sufficiently high signal levels at the receiver.

Parabolic antenna
A parabolic antenna for Erdfunkstelle Raisting, the biggest facility for satellite communication in the world, based in Raisting, Bavaria, Germany.

A parabolic antenna is a high-gain reflector antenna used for radio, television and data communications, and also for radiolocation (RADAR), on the UHF and SHF parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The relatively short wavelength of electromagnetic (radio) energy at these frequencies allows reasonably sized reflectors to exhibit the very desirable highly directional response for both receiving and transmitting. With the advent of TVRO and DBS satellite television, the parabolic antenna became a ubiquitous feature of urban, suburban, and even rural, landscapes. Extensive terrestrial microwave links, such as those between cellphone base stations, and wireless WAN/LAN applications have also proliferated this antenna type. Earlier applications included groundbased and airborne radar and radio astronomy. The largest "dish" antenna in the world is the Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, but, for beam-steering reasons, it is actually a spherical, rather than parabolic, reflector.

Design: Main types of parabolic antennas

A typical parabolic antenna consists of a parabolic reflector illuminated by a small feed antenna. The reflector is a metallic surface formed into a paraboloid of revolution and (usually) truncated in a circular rim that forms the diameter of the antenna. This paraboloid possesses a distinct focal point by virtue of having the reflective property of parabolas in that a point light source at this focus produces a parallel light beam aligned with the axis of revolution. The feed antenna is placed at the reflector focus. This antenna is typically a low-gain type such as a half-wave dipole or a small waveguide horn. In more complex designs, such as the Cassegrain antenna, a sub-reflector is used to direct the energy into the parabolic reflector from a feed antenna located away from the primary focal point. The feed antenna is connected to the associated radio-frequency (RF) transmitting or receiving equipment by means of a coaxial cable Applying the formula to the 25-meter-diameter antennas used by the VLA and VLBA radio telescopes at a wavelength of 21 cm (1.42 GHz, a common radio astronomy frequency) yields an approximate maximum gain of 140,000 times or about 50 dBi (decibels above the isotropic level).


Wire-type parabolic antenna (Wi-Fi / WLAN antenna at 2,4Ghz). Oriented to provide horizontal polarization: the reflector wires and the feed element are both horizontal. This antenna has a greater extent in the vertical plane and hence, a narrower beamwidth in that plane. The feed element has a wider beam in the vertical direction than the horizontal and hence matches the reflector by illuminating it fully.

The reflector dish can be solid, mesh or wire in construction and it can be either fully circular or somewhat rectangular depending on the radiation pattern of the feeding element. Solid antennas have more ideal characteristics but are troublesome because of weight and high wind load. Mesh and wire types weigh less, are easier to construct and have nearly ideal characteristics if the holes or gaps are kept under 1/10 of the wavelength. More exotic types include the off-set parabolic antenna, Gregorian and Cassegrain types. In the off-set, the feed element is still located at the focal point, which because of the angles utilized, is usually located below the reflector so that the feed element and support do not interfere with the main beam. This also allows for easier maintenance of the feed, but is usually only found in smaller antennas. The Gregorian and Cassegrain types, sometimes generically referred to as "dual optics" antennas, utilize a secondary reflector, or "sub-reflector", allowing for better control over the colimated beam as well as allowing the antenna feed system to be more compact. These antennas are usually much larger where prime focus and off-set construction are not as practical. The feed element is usually located in a "feed horn" which protrudes out from the main reflector. This setup is used when the feed element is bulky or heavy such as when it contains a pre-amplifier or even the actual receiver or transmitter. Parabolic antenna theory closely follows optics theory. So a Gregorian antenna can be identified by the fact that it uses a concave sub-reflector, while a Cassegrain antenna uses a convex sub-reflector.


Troposcatter propagation
a) - troposcatter or tropospheric scatter is a form of radio signal propagation for radio communications links up to distances up to about 1000 km using the troposphere

One useful form of radio communications technology for applications where path lengths of around 800 km are needed is known as tropospheric scatter or troposcatter. It is a reliable form of radio communications link that can be used regardless of the prevailing tropospheric conditions. Although reliable, when using troposcatter, the signal strengths are normally very low. Accordingly troposcatter radio communications links require high powers, high antenna gains and sensitive receivers.

Troposcatter is often used for commercial radio communications applications, normally on frequencies above 500 MHz for over the horizon links. It is ideal for remote telemetry, or other links where low to medium rate data needs to be carried. Where viable, troposcatter provides a means of communication that is much cheaper than using satellites.


Troposcatter basics

As the name implies, troposcatter uses the troposphere as the region that affects the radio signals being transmitted, returning them to Earth so that they can be received by the distant receiver. Troposcatter relies on the fact that there are areas of slightly different dielectric constant in the atmosphere at an altitude of between 2 and 5 kilometres. Even dust in the atmosphere at these heights adds to the reflection of the signal. A transmitter launches a high power signal, most of which passes through the atmosphere into outer space. However a small amount is scattered when is passes through this area of the troposphere, and passes back to earth at a distant point. As might be expected, little of the signal is "scattered" back to Earth and as a result, path losses are very high. Additionally the angles through which signals can be reflected are normally small.

The principle of troposcatter radio communications

The area within which the scattering takes place is called the scatter volume, and its size is dependent upon the gain of the antennas used at either end. In view of the fact that scattering takes place over a large volume, the received signal will have travelled over a vast number of individual paths, each with a slightly different path length. As they all take a slightly different time to reach the receiver, this has the effect of "blurring" the overall received signal and this makes high speed data transmissions difficult. It is also found that there are large short term variations in the signal as a result of turbulence and changes in the scatter volume. As a result commercial troposcatter propagation systems use multiple diversity systems. This is achieved by using vertical and horizontally polarised antennas as well as different scatter volumes (angle diversity) and different frequencies (frequency diversity). Control of these systems is normally undertaken by computers. In this way troposcatter radio communications systems can run automatically giving high degrees of reliability.



Although troposcatter requires high power transmitters, sensitive receivers and high gain antennas, it provides a very convenient data transmission system for many radio communications applications. Although there are limitations, it nevertheless provides a cost effective data communications system, cheaper than using satellites, for many medium distance applications. For example it was used by offshore oil rigs in the North Sea off the UK to provide a medium speed data link back to the mainland.

Another antenna that can change spherical waves into flat plane waves is the lens antenna. This antenna uses a microwave lens, which is similar to an optical lens to straighten the spherical wavefronts. Since this type of antenna uses a lens to straighten the wavefronts, its design is based on the laws of refraction, rather than reflection. Two types of lenses have been developed to provide a plane-wavefront narrow beam for tracking radars, while avoiding the problems associated with the feedhorn shadow. These are the conducting (acceleration) type and the dielectric (delay) type. The lens of an antenna is substantially transparent to microwave energy that passes through it. It will, however, cause the waves of energy to be either converged or diverged as they exit the lens. Consider the action of the two types of lenses. The conducting type of lens is illustrated in figure 1-10, view A. This type of lens consists of flat metal strips placed parallel to the electric field of the wave and spaced slightly in excess of one-half of a wavelength. To the wave these strips look like parallel waveguides. The velocity of phase propagation of a wave is greater in a waveguide than in air. Thus, since the lens is concave, the outer portions of the transmitted spherical waves are accelerated for a longer interval of time than the inner portion.

The spherical waves emerge at the exit side of the conducting lens (lens aperture) as flatfronted parallel waves. This type of lens is frequency sensitive. The dielectric type of lens, shown in figure 1-10, view B, slows down the phase propagation as the wave passes through it. This lens is convex and consists of dielectric material. Focusing action results from the difference between the velocity of propagation inside the dielectric and the velocity of propagation in the air. The result is an apparent bending, or refracting, of the waves. The amount of delay is determined by the dielectric constant of the material. In most cases, artificial dielectrics, consisting of conducting rods or spheres that are small compared to the wavelength, are used. In this case, the inner portions of the transmitted waves are decelerated for a longer interval of time than the outer portions. In a lens antenna, the exit side of the lens can be regarded as an aperture across which there is a field distribution. This field acts as a source of radiation, just as do fields across the mouth of a reflector or horn. For a returning echo, the same process takes place in the lens.