1962-2012: 50th anniversary of a milestone in satellite telecommunications and global television.


Telstar was launched by NASA on July 10, 1962. Shortly after, it relayed the world's first transatlantic television signal, from Andover Earth Station, Maine in the United States, to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center, Brittany, France.

The world remembers the "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union as a defining event of the 1960s. That culminated in six successful landings of piloted spacecraft on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. But Telstar and the communications satellites that followed it were of equal significance in creating the space age.

Developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), Telstar was the world's first active communication satellite. It demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting various types of information via satellite, gained experience in satellite tracking, and studied the effect of Van Allen radiation belts on satellite design. Spherical in shape, the satellite was spin-stabilized to maintain its desired orientation in space. Power to the spacecraft's onboard equipment was provided by a solar array in conjunction with a battery back-up system.
The original Telstar was part of a an agreement between AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office (GPO) and the French National Post Telegraph and Telecom Office (PTT).

Although operational for only a few months, and although it could only relay television signals of a brief duration, Telstar immediately captured the imagination of the world. The first images, of President John F. Kennedy from the United States, 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 the precursors of the "global village" as envisioned by Marshall McLuhan and now something we all take for granted.

Telstar operated in a low-Earth orbit, which required precise tracking by the ground stations in Maine and France. Each ground station had a large microwave antenna ("Horn Antenna") that was mounted on bearings, to permit tracking the satellite during the approximately half-hour period of each orbit when it was overhead. The faint 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. Nonetheless, its place at the dawn of the Space Age is secure.

In July 2012, we will also celebrate 50 years of commercial space, because Telstar was the first commercial payload in space, and we will celebrate 50 years of global information, because Telstar was the first instrument to deliver real time information between continents.