Communications Satellite |

The beginning of the satellite communications era began with the publication of a paper written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. The paper described human-tended space stations designed to facilitate communications links for points on Earth. The key to this concept was the placement of space stations in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), a location 35,786 kilometers (22,300 miles) above Earth. Objects in this orbit will revolve about Earth along its equatorial plane at the same rate as the planet rotates. Thus, a satellite or space station in GEO will seem fixed in the sky and will be directly above an observer at the equator. A communications satellite in GEO can “see” about one-third of Earth’s surface, so to make global communications possible, three satellites need to be placed in this unique orbit.

Clarke envisioned a space station, rather than a satellite, as a communications outpost because he felt that astronauts would be needed to change vacuum tubes for the receivers and transmitters. However, the concept became extraordinarily complex and expensive when life support, food, and living quarters were factored in. For this reason, and because telephone and television services were perceived as adequate, Clarke’s idea was not given much attention. In 1948 the vacuum tube was replaced by longer-lived solid-state transistors, marking the dawn of microelectronics. Humans, it seemed, might not be required to tend space-based communications systems after all. Nonetheless, questions remained: Would there be a demand for communications satellites, and, if so, how would they be placed in orbit?

During the mid-twentieth century, people were generally satisfied with telephone and television service, both of which were transmitted by way of cable and radio towers. However, telephone service overseas was exceptionally bad, and live television could not be received or transmitted over great distances. Properly positioned satellites could provide unobstructed communications for nearly all points on Earth as long as there was a method to put them in orbit.

Shortly after World War II, the United States acquired the expertise of German rocket engineers through a secret mission called Operation Paper-clip. The German rocket program, which produced the world’s first true rocket, the V-2,*was highly valuable to the United States. These engineers were sent to New Mexico to work for the army using hundreds of acquired V-2 missiles. Within a decade, the German engineers produced powerfulmissiles called Jupiter, Juno, and Redstone. At the same time, the U.S Air Force was interested in fielding intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and was separately developing the Atlas, Thor, and Titan rockets to meet this mission. The navy also had a rocket program and was working on a medium-range missile called Vanguard.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, a satellite whose purpose was to demonstrate Soviet technology. Americans were alarmed and demanded that the government establish a space program to regain prestige. President Dwight Eisenhower, they felt, did not do enough to prevent the United States from lagging behind the Soviets technologically. In truth, Eisenhower had directed the navy to launch a satellite on Vanguard, but the rocket was encountering setbacks. The mission to launch the first American satellite fell to the army, whose Juno instrument was doing remarkably well. The satellite Explorer 1 finally went up on January 31, 1958. Launching satellites was possible, and communications satellite concepts were now seriously being considered.

The First Communications Satellites

On December 18, 1958, the military’s Satellite Communications Repeater (SCORE) was launched into low Earth orbit (LEO) by a U.S. Air Force Atlas. SCORE was designed to receive a transmission, record it on tape, and then relay the transmission to another point on Earth within hours. President Eisenhower used the opportunity to demonstrate American technology by transmitting a recorded Christmas greeting to the world, the first time in history a satellite was used for communications.

Recognizing the potential of satellite communications, John Pierce, director of AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratories, developed projects designed to test various communications satellite concepts. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), only two years old, planned to send an inflatable sphere into space for scientific research. Pierce wanted to use the opportunity to reflect signals off the balloon’s metallic surface. On August 12, 1960, the sphere, called Echo 1, was successfully launched, and Pierce was encouraged by the reflective signal tests. Because Echo 1 had no electronic hardware, the satellite was described as passive. For communications to be effective, Pierce felt that active satellites were required.

Meanwhile, the military was continuing with the tape-recorded communications concept, developing new satellites called Courier. The first one was destroyed when the rocket exploded. Courier 2 was successfully launched on October 4, 1960, but failed after seventeen days of operation. During this time, significant military resources were being allocated to Atlas, Titan, and intelligence satellites, which took priority.

Two years after the Echo 1 experiments, Bell Laboratories created Telstar, an active communications satellite designed to operate in medium Earth orbit (MEO), about 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) above Earth’s surface. During this time, NASA selected a satellite design from RCA called Relay to test MEO communications but agreed to launch Telstar as soon as it was ready. Telstar 1 was launched on July 10, 1962, and Relay 1 was sent up on December 13 of the same year. Both were successful, and despite Relay 1’s greater sophistication, people remembered Telstar’s live television broadcasts from the United States to locations in Europe.

Advantages and Disadvantages.

Soon the advantages and disadvantages regarding LEO and MEO communications satellites were being studied. One problem with communications satellites in orbits lower than geosynchronous is the number of satellites required to sustain uninterrupted transmissions. Whereas a single GEO satellite can cover 34 percent of Earth’s surface, individual LEO and MEO satellites cover only between 2 and 20 percent. This means that a fleet of satellites, called a “constellation,” is required for a communications network.

The major advantage in using LEO and MEO communications satellites is a minimization of latency, or the time delay between a transmitted signal and a response, often called the “echo effect.” Even though transmissions travel at the speed of light, a time delay of 0.24 seconds for a round-trip signal through a GEO satellite can make phone calls problematic. Despite this drawback, sending three communications satellites to GEO would save money, and people would not need to wait years for an LEO or MEO constellation to be complete.


Shortly after the Soviet Union launched the first human into space,* President John Kennedy wanted a national plan for space exploration and settled on a series of programs that included the famous Apollo missions to the Moon. Less familiar but perhaps more significant for the long term, Congress, with the support of President Kennedy, authorized the establishment of an organization designed to integrate the nation’s space-based communications network.

Formed in February 1963 by the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, the Communications Satellite Corporation, or Comsat, was given the task of creating a national communications satellite system in the earliest possible time. Half of Comsat would be publicly traded, and the other half would be purchased by satellite manufacturers. Comsat’s first major hurdle was deciding what kind of satellite system it would pursue: LEO, MEO, or GEO. Because Telstar and Relay were successful, these MEO systems seemed the default choice. For uninterrupted communications service, however, about twenty satellites such as Telstar or Relay were needed, costing an estimated $200 million. The president of Comsat, Joseph Charyk, a veteran of satellite engineering programs, was not sure that this was the right way to proceed.

Meanwhile, Hughes Aircraft Company was developing the Syncom series of satellites, each designed to test communications technologies in GEO. The first two satellites were not entirely successful, but Syncom 3, launched on August 19, 1964, achieved a stationary GEO. Charyk was aware of the Syncom project early on and followed its progress closely. Comsat was beginning to realize that a GEO communications satellite network was the most practical in terms of cost. Nevertheless, Comsat asked a variety of companies to study the feasibility of LEO communications constellations in the event that a GEO system was unsuccessful. AT&T and RCA researched the merits of a random system, in which satellites drifted freely without any particular relationship to one another. STL and ITT studied the phased approach, where strings of satellites orbiting at LEO were spaced in such a way to allow for continuous, uninterrupted communications. Comsat finally decided on a GEO system, and on April 6, 1965, it launched Early Bird. This satellite also became a test bed for the latency problem, and methods to suppress the echo effect were successfully employed.

Bandwidth Capacity

During this time, NASA continued to fund research in communications satellite technology, contributing to programs such as Applications Technology Satellites (ATS). Six ATS units were developed and launched, and each was designed to test various technologies related to bandwidth capacity and new components. Of particular importance was bandwidth capacity, the range of frequencies used in a satellite.

Satellite communications providers were particularly interested in boosting the capacity of transponders used for telephone conversations and television broadcasts. A telephone call, for example, uses about 5 kilohertz of bandwidth. A satellite with 50 kilohertz of bandwidth can handle ten calls simultaneously. Early satellites could only handle about thirty calls at one time and were easily overwhelmed. Research continued to improve the capacity problems, and digital technologies have significantly increased the number of simultaneous calls. Satellite engineers also designed antennas that did not interfere with systems orbiting nearby and recommended adequate separation between satellites to prevent signals from interfering.

Becoming Global

After the establishment of Comsat, efforts were under way to approach the international community about setting up a global communications satellite network. Comsat dispatched several key people, along with U.S. State Department officials, to a dozen nations interested in the communications satellite market. In 1964, Intelsat was formed, and it started operations using part of the new Early Bird satellite launched in 1965. Comprised originally of twelve members, Intelsat is an organization that owns and operates global communications networks providing voice, video, and data services. Intelsat collects investment capital from its members and makes a profit from the sale or lease of satellite services. In 2000, Intelsat had 143 member countries and signatories, with Comsat still representing the United States.

Other international communications satellite organizations have since formed, such as Eutelsat, a cooperative formed in 1977 providing regional communications services for Europe. France, England, and Germany established the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) and the European Launch Development Organization (ELDO) shortly after the launch of an experimental communications satellite called Symphonie in 1967. ESRO was responsible for research, development, construction, and operation of payloads and ELDO handled launch activities. Because of management and system integration concerns, ESRO and ELDO merged to form the European Space Agency in 1974. Three years later, the Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications (CEPT) approved the formation of Eutelsat, which by 2000 had nearly fifty members.

Comsat was also asked to assist in the development of a regional communications satellite organization for southwestern Asia, northern Africa, and areas of southern Asia. Comsat agreed and was contracted to develop and build what later became known as Arabsat. Inmarsat, founded in 1982, is another international organization providing global communications services to seagoing vessels and oil platforms.

The Soviet Union, recognizing the benefits of a global communications satellite network, was not interested in a GEO system because of the country’s northern location. A GEO system comprised of three satellites would miss parts of the Soviet Union. The Soviets developed an ingenious solution by launching communications satellites into highly elliptical orbits. The orbit consisted of a very close and fast approach over the Southern Hemisphere while tracing a slow and lengthy arc over the Soviet mainland. In 1965 the Soviet Union launched its first communications satellite as part of an ongoing system called Molniya, a name also assigned to the unusual orbit it occupies.

The Soviet Union, despite being approached by representatives of Comsat and the State Department to join Intelsat, declined membership and initiated a regional network in 1971 called Intersputnik. Intersputnik was successful during the following decades with its Gorizont, Express, and Gals satellites but experienced funding difficulties after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the 1990s, however, Intersputnik was revitalized with a membership of twenty-three nations and the recent introduction of a new series of satellites, the Express-A.

Back to LEO?

In the early 1990s, LEO communications satellite constellations were revisited. Microelectronics was allowing for smaller satellites with greater capacities, and the launch industry was stronger than it was thirty years earlier. Two companies that pursued this concept were Iridium and Teledesic.

Iridium’s plan was to loft about 100 satellites into several LEOs to provide uninterrupted cell phone and pager services anywhere on Earth. Iridium became the first company to provide these services on November 1, 1998. Sixty-six Iridium satellites, all built by Motorola, were launched in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, Iridium filed for bankruptcy in 1999.*

Despite the anticipated effect of Iridium’s 1999 bankruptcy on the market, Teledesic, a company planning to provide computer networking, wireless Internet access, interactive media, and voice and video services, will use LEO satellites developed and built by Motorola. Founded by Craig McCaw and Microsoft founder Bill Gates with $9 billion in 1990, Teledesic also experienced financial troubles but by 2000 was prepared to tap into part of the market originally pursued by Iridium. With Lockheed Martin contracted to provide launch services for all 288 satellites plus spares, Teledesic plans to be operational in 2005.

By 1998 satellite communications services included telephone, television, radio, and data processing, and totaled about $65.9 billion in revenues, or almost 7 percent of the total telecommunications industry. During that year, about 215 communications satellites were in GEO and 187 in LEO.

see also Clarke, Arthur C. (volume 1); Communications, Future Needs in (volume 4); Ground Infrastructure (volume 1); Satellite Industry (volume 1).

Phil Smith


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*In 1944 and 1945, the Nazis launched V-2 ballistic missiles toward England, but the assault came too late to turn the war in Germany’s favor.

*On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, making a one-orbit, ninety-minute flight around Earth.

*In 2000 Iridium Satellite LLC purchased the Iridium satellite system and began selling satellite phone service at much lower prices than its predecessor, Iridium.