Satellites, History of

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A history of communication satellites must begin with the first satellite, though it was not used for communication. On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, making the Soviet Union the first space power and starting the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was the second country to reach space. Four months after Sputnik I achieved orbit, the United States launched Explorer I.

The idea of using satellites for communication predates both Explorer and Sputnik. In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke first suggested that satellites in geosynchronous orbit could be used for communication purposes. The belt that circles the Equator more than 22,000 miles in space is often called Clarke orbit, in his honor.

In 1960, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Skynet joined forces to launch an experimental aluminum-coated balloon. Echo I was used to reflect microwave radio signals between Holmdel, New Jersey, and Gold-stone, California. What engineers learned from Echo I formed the basis of all future satellite transmission engineering calculations. In 1962, Telstar I, another joint venture of NASA and Skynet, became the world's first active communication satellite. The founding of the Communications Satellite Corporation (ComSat) in 1963 marked the beginning of deployment and operation of satellites on a commercial basis.

Early Satellites

The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) was created in 1964. Intelsat is a consortium of countries that bonded together to form a cooperative to operate communication satellites. In August of that year, NASA's Syncom 3 became the first geostationary communication satellite. A few months later, in April 1965, Intelsat began operations with Early Bird, which provided 240 telephone circuits and a single, fuzzy black-and-white television link between Europe and the United States.

Once Intelsat had launched additional satellites, it was able to establish the first global communication satellite system in 1969. On July 20, 1969, Intelsat provided television coverage of the historic lunar landing of the U.S. spacecraftApollo 11. The first words spoken by a human on the moon (Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind") were heard by millions of people around the world because of one giant leap in communication technology, which continued to improve. In 1978, approximately one billion people in forty-two countries were able to watch World Cup soccer matches that were beamed around the globe by Intelsat.

Westar I, which was the first U.S. domestic communication satellite, was launched on April 13, 1974. By the end of 1976, there were 120 transponders available over the United States. Each transponder could provide fifteen hundred telephone channels and one television channel. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was the first network to send programming to its affiliates via satellite. On February 1, 1978, twenty-four stations in the southeastern United States began receiving programming through a single C-band transponder on Westar I. For a month, PBS continued to use telephone company lines as a backup to the satellite. It took nearly one year to get all PBS affiliates across the nation on the system. By then, PBS was using three transponders to provide time-delay feeds to stations in different time zones.

The Satellite Boom

In the early 1980s, the Intelsat V and VI spacecraft series made it possible, for the first time, for broadcasters to transmit news feeds using relatively small, portable Earth stations. Prior to that time, broadcasters used the land lines of a single company, AT&T, to transmit news feeds, and indeed, until the late 1970s, all network programming was fed to affiliates via land lines. A failure of AT&T's lines meant no television for viewers in the affected area. The networks first began to use C-band satellites as a backup to the telephone company lines, and generally, the satellite transmissions proved to be more dependable. However, C-band dishes are quite large and not very portable, and all transmissions on those frequencies require clearance by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to minimize interference problems with other communication devices (such as terrestrial microwave) that operate on the same frequency band. All of those factors made it almost impossible to use C-band to transmit news feeds, except of the most important, preplanned events. When CNN went on the air on June 1, 1980, the cable network fed its programming using C-band.

At about the same time, Ku-band became more of a possibility. There was only one class of primary users for Ku-band, and the higher frequency meant that the wavelength was shorter, hence, the size of the dish was about one-third that needed for C-band. The size, mobility, and lack of interference on Ku-band opened up a world of possibilities for news operations.

One date in the early 1980s stands out in the minds of many as the day that satellites made a lasting change in the way in which local stations covered news. On the same day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president of the United States, January 20, 1981, Iran released fifty-two American hostages who had been held for more than one year. News operations from markets across the United States had crews in place to cover the inauguration and in place to cover the return of hostages to the soil of a friendly country and, eventually, back to the United States. Many local stations devoted extensive coverage to the return of "home-town" people among the hostages.

Satellites gave news operations a whole new array of news sources, and they changed the very definition of local news. Prior to the early 1980s, local news included only what stations could cover in the surrounding area. After satellites became a part of a local station's coverage options, local news expanded to include anything that would be of interest to local viewers, regardless of where the event occurred. News managers could send crews to cover interesting cultural events in other parts of the state, events of the day from the state legislature, and even events that took place in other parts of the world.

The mid-1980s saw an explosion of live reporting via satellite, as news outlets and programmers realized that properly sizing Ku-band dishes would eliminate most of the concern about weather interference with Ku-band signals. Technological advances also made the equipment smaller, lighter, and, perhaps most important, less expensive. Various satellite cooperatives arose at that time, including CONUS (derived from "continental United States"), which was formed in 1984 by Hubbard Broadcasting and a group of limited-partner television stations. CONUS built its product with the needs of local news operations in mind, and uplink-equipped trucks became the satellite equivalent of electronic newsgathering (ENG) field units. CONUS began feeding video on half transponders as early as 1985. Because the dishes had to be larger to send narrower bandwidth signals (to take up only half a transponder), Earth stations were more expensive, but news operations and satellite vendors were able to recoup those expenses by spending less on satellite time. Being able to get more than one signal on a transponder became increasingly important during peak news hours as more and more stations started to do live reporting.

Video Feed Services

CNN started its video feed service, New Source, in October 1987, and it and CONUS became viable ways for local stations to get video from other stations across the country. The success that New-Source and CONUS had in attracting local stations to use their services caused news executives at the major networks to rethink their commitment to their affiliates, and all three networks soon revamped their own feed services. For example, NBC helped many of its affiliates to purchase Ku-band satellite trucks and was a leader in the switch to Ku-band feeds. Many industry observers say satellites changed the relationship between networks and their affiliates forever, as the networks turned more and more to the affiliates to get news material for network programs and became more responsive to the affiliates' needs for video from other markets.

Soon, local stations and networks were sending and receiving video so frequently that what some have called a "river of video" developed in space. Through the 1980s, more stations acquired satellite newsgathering equipment and more channels developed, requiring the distribution of programming to cable headends (distribution points) throughout the United States and beyond. The explosion of cable channels would have been impossible without satellite distribution of material. Likewise, local news operations began to expand from sixty or ninety minutes of news per day to as much as three or four hours per day. In many cases, this was done with little or no additional staff. Much of the material that was used to fill the extra news time came from regional and national feed services and consortia.

About that time, Hubcom developed fly-away packs. All of the hardware that was needed to send satellite signals could be put into cases that were small enough to fit into the cargo area of airliners. With an engineer to operate the system, a news crew could be on-site and sending signals from some of the most remote places on Earth within a few hours of landing.

International Uses

The international market for satellite distribution continued to expand as well. However, one man felt that the Hispanic market was being ignored by the only international carrier at the time, Intelsat. Rene Anselmo was head of what has since become the Spanish-language network, Uni-vision. In the late 1980s, he lobbied the Reagan administration for permission to launch his own satellite. He hoped to use the satellite to link the United States and Latin America. PAS-1 was launched in 1988. It was the world's first privately owned international satellite, and it cost Anselmo most of his personal fortune to put it in the sky. Still, the company that he founded—PanAmSat— soon came to rival Intelsat as an international provider of satellite services.


The early 1990s saw the beginning of signal compression as more and more users tried to fit more and more material on a limited number of communication satellites. Because there is only so much room in geostationary orbit, the satellite industry had to figure out a way to get more signals onto existing satellites. PanAmSat was an early leader in this arena. The idea is simple. If more than one signal can be squeezed (com-pressed) so that they fit on a single transponder, feed capacity can double, triple, or even quadruple without the launch of a single new satellite. The only other option was to reduce the spacing of satellites in Clarke orbit from two degrees to one degree, but that would have made it necessary to double the size of Earth-based uplink antennas. That would have limited the number of places where ground stations could go, and it would have been costly as well.

Satellite companies continue to launch new spacecraft that occupy the few remaining orbital slots and expand the number of transponders that are available. In July 1997, Telstar V ushered in the digital age, giving users the opportunity to use full transponders or to channelize (compress) signals to get more capacity out of existing hardware with no loss of quality. On January 24, 2000, PanAmSat deployed a powerful hybrid satellite (having both C-and Ku-band transponders).

See also:Cable Television, System Technology of; Digital Communication; Satellites, Communication; Satellites, Technology of; Telecommunications, Wireless; Telephone Industry, Technology of; Television Broadcasting, Technology of.


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C. A. Tuggle