We have, so far, looked at the different types of man-made satellites that are around us, and have also appreciated how satellites can help us with weather and environmental monitoring. But it would interest you to know that the far-away orbiters also play a vital role in your day-to-day life. Yes – knock, knock – we mean you, the one reading this on your phone or laptop through the ‘magic’ of the internet.
In a sort of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ turn of events, it was science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who first presented the idea of enhancing communications capabilities through satellites in 1945. In an article written for Wireless World, he described the possibility of a “space-station” and said, “it could be provided with receiving and transmitting equipment and could act as a repeater to relay transmissions to any two points on the hemisphere beneath…”. And that was the birth of the vision behind communications satellites!
A brief history of communications satellites
Before satellites were launched into space, Trans-Atlantic Telephone Cables (TAT) were the primary source of telecommunications. The first cable was laid out in 1858 between Ireland and Newfoundland, so, Queen Victoria could send a telegram to the US President James Buchanan. The TAT was developed over the years to carry more telecommunications that could also go both ways and could at one point carry over 36 calls simultaneously. However, the costs were high and the work was so complex. This is when the discussion regarding satellites came into place.
In 1959, NASA launched their project named Echo 1, a communications satellite project with a 110-foot-diameter inflatable sphere which was the initial test for a satellite launch system. The balloon survived the first stage of the launch, but it exploded due to minor technical errors shortly after taking off.
In 1964, however, six satellites were successfully put into space through a collaboration between NASA, AT&T, RCA as well as Hughes Aircraft Company. Before this, the Communications Satellite Act (COMSAT) was formed and their goal was to launch global satellite communications with the help of NASA and their first satellite – the EARLY BIRD that was launched on 6 April 1965 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Coverage across the world continued to spread, as many more countries joined with earth communications stations and the new international organisation, INTELSAT (that provided slightly longer and sharper communications forms than COMSAT) completed the global network by providing coverage to the Indian Ocean. Luckily, the timing was just on point as the completion happened just a few days before half a billion people watched Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon.
In the years to come many countries wanted their own domestic services and started launching their own satellites. The US had 120 transponders over the continent in 1976 that together could provide almost two million phone calls. Australia launched their own domestic satellite for wider coverage in 1985.
If you live in Australia, you have probably heard about NBN. NBN is a type of broadband coverage that differs a bit from satellites, as it relies on optical fibre rather than satellite telecommunications. Optical fibre is one of the biggest competitors to satellites and has in many instances proven to be successful. Many households that have NBN have a fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) solution, which is optic fibre drawn straight to the household providing good internet connection. Some premises have fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), which is optical fibre connected to a node, and the node, then, disperse the connection through copper wires to households. However, this has not lived up to the expectations that they set out. In many countries, the optical fibre has been the way to go when it comes to internet providers, but the NBN in Australia has not yet proven to be as successful.
The history of communications satellites is truly fascinating, and how the field has evolved from the Transatlantic optical fibres to highly complex satellites enabling us to communicate with (almost) anyone on the planet is something many of us may take for granted nowadays. Given how far we have come in the past 60 years since we launched our first communications satellites, it is truly exciting to see how quickly we will be able to establish just as impressive communications networks with the rest of our solar system in the near future.