An eye for an i #445 Children

The world’s first active communications satellite

Model of a Telstar satellite on display at a museum.   | Photo Credit: Rama/ Wikimedia Commons

We take global live broadcasts for granted these days. And yet, there was a time, not too far back, when worldwide broadcasts weren’t a reality. In fact, it was only in 1962 that information truly went global with the Telstar 1 mission.

An international collaboration among AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegram, and Telegraph Office was at the heart of the Telstar mission. It was chiefly developed by Bell Labs for AT&T, and its onboard equipment was powered by a solar array along with a battery back-up system.

Tracked by ground stations

Right after launch on July 10, 1962, Telstar 1 immediately created a first as it became the first commercial payload in space. It operated in a low-Earth orbit, tracked by ground stations equipped with large microwave antennas.

Two days after launch, on July 12, the world’s first active communications satellite relayed the world’s first transatlantic television signal. The first global television signal was transmitted from Andover Earth Station, Maine, to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center, Brittany, France. The times when video reels had to travel by an aeroplane across the ocean from one continent to another would soon become a thing of the past as Telstar 1 heralded a new age of communications.

The first images included views of the iconic Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, images of the then U.S. President John F. Kennedy and French singer Yves Montand, and even had clips from sporting events and shots of an American flag fluttering.

First live broadcast

What came 13 days after launch on July 23 was even more special as the first live broadcast took place. With journalists, newscasters, and broadcasters from the U.S. and the U.K. involved, the multinational broadcast was carried across American networks CBS, NBC, and ABC, Eurovision in Europe, and CBC in Canada. The hosts of the show were quick to identify that the greatest significance of this new communication bridge was its heightened nature of portraying immediacy.

The Telstar 1 was operational for only a few months as an on-board electronics failure, the result of the effects of radiation, put an end to its usability in November 1962. By then, it had completed over 400 transmissions that fell in the telephone, telegraph, facsimile, or television categories.

The learnings from Telstar 1 were put into effect in following missions. These included placing subsequent communications satellites at a much higher orbit. Placed at close to 35,786 km from the Earth’s surface, these geostationary satellites’ speed match that of the Earth’s rotation, and hence appear to be located in a fixed point in the skies. As a result, the satellite dish antennas of ground stations can be trained at this spot permanently and do not have to be moved to track the satellite.

Apart from having demonstrated that information could be sent via satellite and hence going past existing transmission limits, the Telstar 1 mission also helped gain experience in satellite tracking and studied the effects of Van Allen radiation belts (a zone of energetic charged particles) on the design of the satellite. Telstar 1 and the satellites that followed made communication instantaneous and an everyday affair.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 10:20:46 AM |

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