50 years ago today: Telstar pioneers satellite broadcasting

We often talk of technology “making the world smaller”, and that concept was most vividly demonstrated 50 years ago today. The launch of the original Telstar satellite on 10 July 1962 was a true communications breakthrough, allowing for television, phone, and even fax transmissions to be beamed around the world via space rather than through transcontinental cables. It also allowed for even more precise time synchronization between North American and Europe.

Telstar was a truly international project, combining the efforts of American, British and French agencies. They created a satellite that is a mere 34.5 inches in diameter and weighs just 77 pounds.

It runs on just 14 watts of power, provided by a series of solar panels placed around the spherical surface. (Though technically black, these panels appeared blue in space, and combined with the satellite’s white background, Telstar does appear to have had some influence on the design of the R2-D2 character.)

The goal of Telstar was to carry signals across the Atlantic Ocean. Telstar performs an elliptical orbit, meaning it isn’t a constant distance from the Earth. As a result, although it circuits Earth in two and a half hours, it was only usable when it passed directly over the Atlantic, which allowed a 20-25 minute window for each orbit.

Although the television capabilities of Telstar were tested the day after launch, it wasn’t used for public transmission until July 23. European viewers had expected their first transatlantic moving pictures to be an address by John F Kennedy, though the uplink was in place earlier than expected so the first footage was actually a broadcast from a Phillies vs Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field.

Ironically it was human technological experimentation that spelled the end for the original Telstar’s broadcasting life. Nuclear testing by both the US and Russia created enough radiation to create two transistor failures on the satellite, the second of which proved irreparable in February 1963.

Though long out of operation, NASA reported as recently as 2010 that Telstar 1 is still in orbit.

As well as being the subject of a hit song by the Tornados, the satellite’s name was later honored in a range of commercial products including a Ford auto range and a British record label. GaS readers may also recognize it as the name of a range of games consoles in the late 1970s that mainly involved variations on the hugely successful Pong. Only the last of the 14 consoles in the range allowed for interchangeable game cartidges.

The most aesthetic homage to Telstar was an Adidas soccer ball created for the 1970 and 1974 World Cup tournaments. It was the first World Cup ball to use black and white panels, somewhat similar in design to the Telstar satellite, rather than a solid color.