Telstar 1 – 50 Years Ago

Telstar 1 satelliteJuly 12, 1962: The Day Information Went Global

Telstar was launched by NASA on July 10, 1962, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and was the first privately sponsored space-faring mission. Two days later, it relayed the world’s first transatlantic television signal, from Andover Earth Station, Maine, to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center, Brittany, France.

Developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories for AT&T, Telstar was the world’s first active communications satellite and the world’s first commercial payload in space. It demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting information via satellite, gained experience in satellite tracking and studied the effect of Van Allen radiation belts on satellite design. The satellite was spin-stabilized to maintain its desired orientation in space. Power to its onboard equipment was provided by a solar array, in conjunction with a battery back-up system.

Telstar launchAlthough operational for only a few months and relaying television signals of a brief duration, Telstar immediately captured the imagination of the world. The first images, those of President John F. Kennedy and of singer Yves Montand from France, along with clips of sporting events, images of the American flag waving in the breeze and a still image of Mount Rushmore, were precursors of the global communications that today are mostly taken for granted.

Telstar operated in a low-Earth orbit and was tracked by the ground stations in Maine and France. Each ground station had a large microwave antenna mounted on bearings, to permit tracking the satellite during the approximately half-hour period of each orbit when it was overhead. The signals from Telstar were received and amplified by a low-noise “maser” (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), the predecessor of the modern laser. After demonstrating the feasibility of the concept, subsequent communications satellites adopted a much higher orbit, at 22,300 miles above the Earth, at which the satellite’s speed matched the Earth’s rotation and thus appeared fixed in the sky. During the course of its operational lifespan, Telstar 1 facilitated over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions. It operated until November 1962, when its on-board electronics failed due to the effects of radiation.

Above: Telstar News 1962 and President John F. Kennedy’s July 23, 1962, press conference.

Above: The Telstar Story

This story courtesy of NASA.

Ed: It is interesting to note the thinking back then that a constellation of satellite would be needed. It was before the geosynchronous orbit had been tried.

Arthur Clarke is generally remembered for developing the idea. He conceived of it as way to broadcast radio signals across large parts of the world, and published it in English in 1945. There were however at least two others who came up with closely related ideas earlier than Clarke.

The first was a Russian, Tsoilkovsky. His idea was oriented around developing a space elevator. Given the engineering at the time, 1895, such an invention was impossible (and still is), and the idea was largely forgotten.

The second was a Slovene, Potocnik. He calculated the orbit, and proposed it as a place to park inhabited satellites, rather than strictly radio communication satellites. He died young shortly after his book came out, and the idea was largely forgotten.

In addition, language played some role in publicizing the idea. Clarke, publishing in English just at the time when the space race was starting, caught people’s attention. The others did not have a much of an audience in their native countries, and in the case of Potocnik, his book wasn’t fully translated to English until 1999. Things might have been historically different if either had presented their ideas in Berlin or London to audiences of the premier physicists and engineers of the day.

1 thought on “Telstar 1 – 50 Years Ago

  1. I forgot to mention in the post that this is celebrating 50 years since the first transmissions on Telstar. I have changed the title to reflect this and I would also like to remind everyone that the Compac 50th is coming up in November 2013 and I have suggested to the OTVA that we should do something big in celebration of the cable opening. I would urge all interested to support the project if it gets off the ground – oops – good satellite pun wasted!

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