IDG News Service - Fifty years ago this week a Delta rocket roared into space carrying a payload that sparked a revolution in the way the world communicates. On board the rocket, launched on July 10, was Telstar, the first telecommunications satellite.
The story of Project Telstar can be traced back to 1955 when John Pierce, a researcher at AT&T's Bell Labs, began looking at the possibility of using space-based stations for communications.
Beginning in 1960, NASA and Bell Labs experimented with bouncing radio via large, metallic balloons and succeeded in sending a signal across the U.S. But engineers soon realized that the Project Echo technology didn't scale. The demands of television transmission required a balloon much larger than could be made at the time.
In stepped the much more sophisticated Telstar.
At about 34 inches (76.2 centimeters) in diameter, the roughly circular satellite (it actually had 72 sides) would spin on its axis in space as it orbited the Earth. Solar panels occupied most of the faces and charged 19 batteries, "of the type used in rechargeable flashlights but specifically designed for the space environment," read a Bell Labs paper of the time.
The electronics, housed in a 20-inch aluminium tube, consisted of an amplifier that would boost the received signal about ten billion times before it was retransmitted. Original plans called for the satellite to relay two channels of television, but weight restrictions of the Delta launch rocket meant this was cut back to a single channel.
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Fifty years ago, a LOT of what we take for granted now didn't exist. Global communications were available, but mostly via transatlantic cables. If you wanted to call India from NYC, it took time, patience and money - and lots of all three of those parameters, too. There was no such thing as "breaking news, live from Tahrir Square" in that day and age; simply too much was involved in delivering breaking news from half-way around the world. Telstar changed the face of world communications. It was crude by today's standards, only capable of handling the signal of one television channel, but it is a milepost by which we can say, "Facile intercontinental communications started HERE." Fact is, the Telstar series goes on today, 12 generations downstream from the original, and it and satellites like it make possible everything from live TV broadcasts to international cell phone communications
Everything starts from somewhere. Fifty years ago today, something very significant had its start, and the impact half a century later is incalculable.