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Satellite tracking

Arthur (Goonhilly dish No.1)

Goonhilly - the big dish (1962) : Britain's first satellite centre

By the mid 1950s it became clear that Britain was going to need its own earth station - a dish to send and receive signals relayed via satellite. Goonhilly Downs on Cornwall's Lizard peninsula provided the ideal location for much the same reasons as it had for Marconi - on account of its clear view out over the Atlantic.

Work began in 1960 on the first steerable dish, now called Arthur (all the dishes at Goonhilly have since been named after characters from Celtic Arthurian legend). When it opened in 1962, Goonhilly was one of the first three satellite earth stations in the world and its dish was an engineering marvel.

Its design incorporated knowledge gained from the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. Arthur had to be big - to trap signals from primitive satellites - and yet be very nimble, to track low orbit 'birds' as they raced across the sky. Thus this huge structure weighing 1,118 tonnes can turn a complete circle in under three minutes and can move from the horizontal through 90 degrees to the vertical.

Madley Earth Station

BT's earth stations : A network of Teleports

Today, Goonhilly is one of five BT satellite earth stations in the UK. The other four are at Madley in Herefordshire, in London Docklands, at Martlesham in Suffolk and in Aberdeen. All are connected by fibre optic cable and overland microwave radio links to BT's nationwide broadcast and communications network.

As telecommunications moves into the new millenium there has been a worldwide shift towards the use of fibre optic cables (pioneered by BT) for high capacity point to point communications.

The movement toward fibre will never displace the use of satellites, however, due to the ease with which traffic can be configured over them - together with their lower cost on shorter routes and overall flexibility.

Satellite launch in space

The development of TV satellites : clever stuff in space

Early television satellites took one signal beamed up to them from one ground station, then relayed it back over a wide area of the Earth.

Modern satellites, or 'birds' as engineers call them, are far more developed and multifunctional. They can receive signals from more than one ground station and retransmit them to various closely defined target areas.

The satellite amplifies the different 'uplink' signals, and re-transmits them on a range of 'downlink' frequencies to both home viewers and the huge receivers that serve cable television networks, known as 'head end' receivers.

Special transmitters, using multiple spot beam antennas, aboard satellites make sure the downlink signals are directed exactly at the target receivers.

Different signals can be beamed from various sections of the satellite's antenna to the different coverage 'footprints' on the ground. This targeting lets the broadcaster focus signals on specific reception areas and make the most of the power available.

Voices in orbit : explaining Satellites

Film made in 1980 which explains satellites for BT Education Services. It explained how satellites worked in sending television pictures at the time and then went on to tell the story of how international collaboration was at the root of successful development of the satellite network.

Voices in orbit

Narrator: Radio relays in space keeping pace with the Earth were foreseen 12 years before Sputnik by British writer Arthur C Clarke, incidentally an ex-Post Office man.

He believed three synchronous satellites could cover the globe. It'll take 50 years declared most of the experts, it took less than 20.

Man: The Americans began it all by saying they could now put the satellites in orbit, would we be interested, we said yes thanks very much but we'd like to build our own ground station.

Narrator: Meanwhile a communication satellite, Telstar was taking shape in America. This beach ball of electronics developed by Bell Laboratories was a very different animal from Clarke's original idea . Most experts were sure that maintaining satellites thousands of miles from earth would not be practicable for years.

So Telstar was put into orbit a mere 600 miles from earth so close that it hurtled across the sky in sight of each ground station for only half an hour.

Even so, Telstar relayed the first television pictures between America, Britain and France in 1962. In the first Telstar year President John F Kennedy signed the communication satellite act saying:

John F Kennedy: 'The ultimate result will be to encourage and facilitate world trade, education, entertainment and many kinds of professional, political and personal discourses which are essential to healthy human relationships and international understanding.'

Narrator: The team chosen to develop these ideas with other countries wanting to share communications satellites was a novel corporation known as COMSAT. Following this American lead into a revolutionary new technology the nations came together to create the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium - INTELSAT - a partnership for progress as hopeful as the science that brought it into being.

11 Governments including Britain, signed on the first day and 50 more joined within 3 years, all agreeing to operate their ground stations but apointing COMSAT to manage the satellite in space.

Engineer - (getting Goonhilly built) : Mr Neil White

Neil White, born in March 1939, grew up in Cornwall. He came to London University to study electrical engineering, however city life didn't suit him and he returned to take up a post working for the Post Office Telephones at the brand new satellite station at Goonhilly in 1961.

Neil tells how Goonhilly was set up against the odds. Satellite was originally intended for military use but the Post Office and NASA had other ideas.

audio clip


Post Office was approached by the NASA people back in the 1960s, would they be interested in international communications via satellites. The expertise that was available at the time was military and the military people said they've just got no communications possibilities whatsoever but they didn't want to upset NASA so they decided to look for somebody in the Post Office who could perhaps handle it and talk to the NASA people. In those early days in the sixties they knew Goonhilly from its television transmission and in those early days, when pictures appeared on the television screen it usually said live by satellite. Nowadays you never see live by satellite because it's taken for granted that you can even watch a war as it's happening live by satellite.

Engineer - (Goonhilly Visitor Centre) : Mr Neil White

Neil White, born in March 1939, grew up in Cornwall. He came to London University to study electrical engineering, however city life didn't suit him and he returned to take up a post working for the Post Office Telephones at the brand new satellite station at Goonhilly in 1961.

Neil persuaded BT to open a visitor centre at the Earth station for the public, but he remembers that the thanks to some free publicity on the radio the opening day was totally overwhelming.

audio clip


We'd had a launch of the new BT at Goonhilly and we had a lot of media people and press people and television people down. And I was chatting to the various people over drinks and sandwiches and I mentioned to this guy that we were opening to the public next. What I didn't realise, the bloke I was talking to was a Radio One disc jockey and when he went back on that following Monday he said by the way if any of you are in Goonhilly tomorrow Goonhilly's open to the public. It taught me that the power of BBC Radio One was phenomenal, because at ten o'clock on Monday morning we were absolutely inundated by people turning up at the front door at Goonhilly in their cars wanting a trip around the station. So my son and my daughter and a couple of friends of theirs were absolutely overwhelmed and it was pouring with rain. We had a very small car park and the first thing happened was I had a phone call from the gate to say that did I realise that we'd got a queue of people going down the entrance drive and they were queuing down the main road outside to come in. So it took off quite well. I managed to convince BT that it was worthwhile doing it properly and I persuaded them to build a visitor centre in 1987. We actually had the visitor centre opened by the managing director so I was quite pleased about that

Satellite pointing : hitting a moving target

How long can you make the broadcast last? Line up the satellite dishes using the red arrows so that they both connect with the satellite. Click the 'Start Satellite Transit' button to begin.

Satellite pointing : hitting a moving target

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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