Telstar was the first communications satellite that was able to transmit and receive television, telephone and data signals across the Atlantic Ocean. Telstar was launched July 10, 1962 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was 16 hours before communications could take place since the new satellite had to make 6 orbits before it was in a usable position. After a few tests, Telstar was ready for relaying signals. Although Telstar was not the first communications satellite, it opened up the possibility of international satellite communications. On the first day in orbit it transmitted a live television signal from the United States to France.

Telstar was a low earth orbit satellite that had to keep moving in order to overcome the earth's gravitational pull. It was only in view for about 90 minutes, three or four times per day. There were many stations around the U.S., France and Great Britain that followed Telstar's path. One of Telstar's functions was to transmit a radio beacon signal that these stations could receive. All the information was then forwarded via telephone lines to the heart of communications in Andover, Maine where a computer processed it all. Once Telstar's position was established a very large horn antenna was aimed at the place where the satellite would come up over the horizon and then it was tracked across the sky. A similar antenna transmitted and recieved signals from Telstar in Pleumere-Bodou, France and a parabolic dish antenna directed signals in and out of a station in Goonhilly Downs, Great Britain.

Bell Labs designed and built Telstar with NASA providing the launch services. Telstar I, as it came to be known, weighed 171 pounds and was about 34 inches in diameter. Solar cells provided almost 15 watts of power. It used the latest advances in miniaturization and electronics. A transponder, integral to the satellite, could amplify a received signal 10 million times and transmit it back to earth. The internal temperature of Telstar was regulated by a thermostat controlled door.

AT&T originally intended to fill the skies with these satellites to provide continuous communication world-wide. They were encouraged by President Eisenhower in 1960 to develope satellite communications to ensure that the U.S. would continue the success it had with communications on the ground. However, one month after Telstar was launched into service Congress passed the 1962 Communications Satellite Act which gave control of international satellite communications to the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat). Half of Comsat was owned by AT&T, RCA, Western Union and other common carriers. The other half was owned by the general public.

Telstar was very popular with the public. It was more widely known in Great Britain than the Soviet launched Sputnik in 1957. It wasn't long before the name Telstar was used for other things, a popular song at the time and a newsstand in Rome. For years most communications satellites were called telstars. A search of the web will net you dozens of results. Telstar's success helped make the world smaller place.


Sources:

"Fibers and Waves to Span the Globe." Communications. Alexandra, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1990.
"Telstar" (http://roland.grc.nasa.gov/~dglover/sat/telstar.html

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