Visible pass of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Atlantis over Tampa, Florida, on mission STS-132, May 18, 2010 (five-minute exposure)
Visible pass of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Atlantis over Tampa, Florida, on mission STS-132, May 18, 2010 (five-minute exposure)

A pass, in spaceflight and satellite communications, is the period in which a satellite or other spacecraft is above the local horizon and available for radio communication with a particular ground station, satellite receiver, or relay satellite (or, in some cases, for visual sighting). The beginning of a pass is termed acquisition of signal (AOS); the end of a pass is termed loss of signal (LOS).[1] The point at which a spacecraft comes closest to a ground observer is the time of closest approach (TCA).[1]

Timing and duration

The timing and duration of passes depends on the characteristics of the orbit a satellite occupies, as well as the ground topography and any occulting objects on the ground (such as buildings), or in space (for planetary probes, or for spacecraft using relay satellites).[2] An observer directly on the ground track of the satellite will experience the greatest ground pass duration.[3] Path loss is greatest toward the start and end of a ground pass,[4] as is Doppler shifting for Earth-orbiting satellites.[5]

Satellites in geosynchronous orbit may be continuously visible from a single ground station, whereas satellites in low Earth orbit only offer short-duration ground passes[3] (although longer contacts may be made via relay satellite networks such as TDRSS). Satellite constellations, such as those of satellite navigation systems, may be designed so that a minimum subset of the constellation is always visible from any point on the Earth, thereby providing continuous coverage.[2]

Prediction and visibility

Main article: List of satellite pass predictors

A number of web-based and mobile applications produce predictions of passes for known satellites.[6] In order to be observed with the naked eye, a spacecraft must reflect sunlight towards the observer; thus, naked-eye observations are generally restricted to twilight hours, during which the spacecraft is in sunlight but the observer is not. A satellite flare occurs when sunlight is reflected by flat surfaces on the spacecraft. The International Space Station, the largest artificial satellite of Earth, has a maximum apparent magnitude of –5.9,[7] brighter than the planet Venus.[8]

See also


  1. ^ a b "AOS, TCA, and LOS". Northern Lights Software Associates. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  2. ^ a b Wood, Lloyd (July 2006). Introduction to satellite constellations: Orbital types, uses and related facts (PDF). ISU Summer Session. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  3. ^ a b Del Re, Encrico; Pierucci, Laura, eds. (6 December 2012). Satellite Personal Communications for Future-generation Systems. Springer. p. 19. ISBN 978-1447101314. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  4. ^ Richharia, Madhavendra (2014). Mobile Satellite Communications: Principles and Trends (Second ed.). Wiley. pp. 106–107. ISBN 978-1118810064. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  5. ^ Montenbruck, Oliver; Eberhard, Gill (2012). Satellite Orbits: Models, Methods, and Applications. Springer. p. 229. ISBN 978-3642583513. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  6. ^ Dickinson, David (July 11, 2013). "How to Spot and Track Satellites". Universe Today. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  7. ^ "ISS Information -". Heavens-above. Retrieved 2007-12-22.
  8. ^ "HORIZONS Web Interface". Solar System Dynamics. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 13 July 2016.