50 Years Ago Today – The Birth of Satellite Communications

The Telstar Satellite

The Telstar Satellite

10th July 1962 marked the birth of satellite communications. Exactly 50 years ago today the Telstar satellite commenced its journey into space from Cape Canaveral and became the first ever active commercial communications satellite. It carried the first live trans-Atlantic TV broadcasts.

These days, satellite launches are commonplace and polar orbits, MEO orbits, Molniya orbits, Tundra orbits and the geostationary orbit are filled with communications satellites operating at frequency bands from UHF through L-Band, S-Band, C-Band, X-Band, Ku-Band, Ka-Band and above. As at 1st January 2012 there were 419 satellites operating in the geostationary orbit alone.

I’m not writing this as a “third party commentator”, but as someone who has been intimately involved with and has contributed to the development of satellite communications during the last 35 years. I’ve worked with some of the organisations and people who gave birth to satellite communications, so this is really a story from the heart.
My encounters were not just with those people who worked with these early satellites, but also with even earlier efforts including “Moon bounce” stuff, much of which is still classified.

The first active communications satellite was a military satellite, Courier 1B, built by Ford Aerospace for the U.S. Army. It was launched into a LEO orbit on 18th August 1960 and a detailed description was published in the March 2008 issue of SatMagazine here.

What a dramatic transformation in just 50 years. Today there are hand-held phones not much bigger than an iPhone that can be used anywhere on the planet to provide immediate connectivity to anywhere else. Direct to home (DTH) satellite TV is the norm and even high data-rate, network-centric business communications can be achieved with ground terminal antenna sizes of only a metre diameter. Getting phone and internet connectivity from a plane is easy.

In the area of defence the current satellite communications capabilities are just awesome – apart from strategic and Government communications I guess you all know how UAVs are used and controlled!

Wind back the clock 50 years, and what a different world. Twitter and Facebook by telegram would be a bit dull!

One of the leading communications companies, Bell Telephone in the USA, poured massive resources into many areas of fundamental physics research related to telecommunications. This all came together with their Telstar satellite and the equally important ground station developments. They funded the lot, including the launch, which was undertaken by NASA.

Telstar, a 34.5 inch diameter ball covered with 3,600 solar cells, weighing 170 pounds and containing 10,000 components was launched by a 90 feet long Douglas Thor Delta rocket (well, missile) into a 2.5 hour period inclined elliptical earth orbit. Waiting for it were ground stations at Andover, Maine in the USA, Pleumeur Bodou in France and Goonhilly in the UK, with Fucino in Italy not far behind.

There are two excellent videos on YouTube covering the event. The first here is a short “newsy” one, with an almost 1950s Sci-Fi feel to it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdaHYAReYkg

The other one here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKH-GijnAGk&feature=related has to be the definitive story of Telstar. It’s a lengthy video produced by AT&T and is the real inside story of Telstar. Thank goodness that this footage has been preserved and uploaded for all to see.

For a really detailed description of Telstar and the events at that time there is nothing to beat the Wikipedia entry, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telstar

Finally, I have penned a couple of blog posts on this website plus a SatMagazine article covering the UK earth station, Goonhilly. You might want to have a look:

http://www.satellitespy.net/blog/earth-stations/help-save-goonhilly-earth-station-complex-139/

http://www.satellitespy.net/blog/earth-stations/good-news-for-goonhilly-space-science-cornwall-299/

SatMagazine article: http://www.satellitespy.net/go/GHY1

Comments

  1. John Warburton says:

    Telstar’s BBC broadcast (including the very first pictures seen by British viewers) is contained in this documentary — the video linked here skips to the start of the story, with the two BBC broadcasts (one near-failure, one success) following a few minutes later.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_sqEnH16BQ&feature=player_detailpage#t=851s

    And Telstar is still flying today! Visible as an 11th magnitude object to very careful observers:

    http://www.n2yo.com/?s=340

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