Skip to main content

The first satellites

Replica of Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957

Pioneer satellites (1957) : 'they're up there...'

Early in October 1957 communications stations started picking up a regular beeping noise coming from space.

The signals were coming from Russia's Sputnik 1, the world's first man-made satellite. The launch of Sputnik caused a panic in Washington, as the USA realised how far it had fallen behind in the space race. The worries deepened three months later, when a Vanguard rocket with America's first satellite exploded two seconds after ignition.

It was January 1958 before a Jupiter rocket successfully launched Explorer 1, the first American satellite.

Building the first dish antenna at the GPOs Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station

NASA's Syncom programme (1963) : proving the geosynchronous concept

In July 1963 the Hughes Aircraft Corporation launched the experimental Syncom 2 for NASA, the world's first geosynchronous communications satellite. Its earlier sister, Syncom 1, had been blown up on launch earlier that year, but version two was a huge success. It carried the first live two-way satellite call between heads of state when President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C., telephoned Nigerian Prime Minister Abubaker Balewa in Africa.

The third Syncom satellite transmitted live television coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games from Tokyo. Syncom blazed the trail for the new generation of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Early Bird Satellite, 1965

Early Bird (1965) : a new breed

The world's first commercial communications satellite was Early Bird, built for the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) by Hughes. The satellite was launched on April 6, 1965, and placed in commercial service after moving into geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. That meant it was always on station to provide line of sight communications between Europe and North America. But Early Bird didn't have a battery - and worked only when its solar panels were exposed to the sun.

Early Bird handled all types of network traffic, including telephone, television, telegraph and facsimile transmissions. It was designed for an operational lifetime of only 18 months, but actually lasted in service for almost four years. It could handle 240 simultaneous telephone calls or one TV channel at a time - today's communications satellites do much better.

Intelsat 7, 1993

Later communications satellites : The global network is created

The launch of the Intelsat 3 satellites in 1969 created a global TV and speech communications network that spanned the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The introduction of multiple-beam antennas in the 1980s brought new improvements in efficiency, as a satellite's power could now be concentrated on small regions of the Earth, making possible smaller-aperture (coverage area), lower-cost ground stations. Capacity - the number of simultaneous television and speech channels carried - grew as well.

Some satellites are now dedicated to television broadcasting but many are multifunctional, handling international voice and data communications, video conferencing, business television as well as data broadcasting for the retail industry.

These days, a growing number of companies use satellites to provide broadband Internet access to business users by means of spot-beams. As prices fall, these services will also appeal to home users keen to exploit broadband services but living remote from digital telephone or cable networks.

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.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...