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Bell Labs marks half-century since Telstar launch

The satellite communications era is 50 years old this week. The global satcom industry – now earning upwards of $100 billion annually – dates back to the first active communications satellite, Telstar-1, launched by Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral on 10 July 1962.

Placed into a 5638 km by 954 km orbit it remains in to this day, the 88-cm diameter satellite linked-up the shores of the Atlantic for an average 20 minutes per two-and-a-half hour orbit. Telstar-1 relayed the first trans-Atlantic live television transmissions and telephone calls on the same evening it launched. AT&T’s ground station in Andover Maine transmitted to Pleumeur-Bodou in northern France and (despite a first-night technical hitch) Goonhilly Down in Cornwall, UK.

On Tuesday Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs in New Jersey celebrate Telstar-1’s achievement with guests including Walter Brown, part of the original Telstar team who oversaw its space radiation monitoring experiments. Then the powerhouse R&D facility of AT&T’s US telephone monopoly, Bell Labs’ 1948 invention of the transistor and 1954 invention of the solar cell helped make Telstar-1 possible. From 1960 on almost a third of Bell Labs worked on Telstar development (including Telstar-2, launched in 1963, and four other unflown satellites).

Weighing in at 77kg and transmitting with just 2 watts of power, Telstar-1 would be classed as a micro-satellite by 2012 standards. Most of the heavy lifting had to be performed by its ground stations, both in tracking Telstar across the sky and amplifying its signals to usable levels.

The open parabolic dish design of the UK General Post Office’s Goonhilly Down Antenna One (AKA ‘Arthur’) set the global standard for satellite ground stations, arguably consigning Bell Labs’ rival horn antenna to the history books.

However, BT – the GPO’s corporate descendant – is not marking Telstar-1’s anniversary at Goonhilly. “Most of the antennas, including the giant dishes, on the site are now leased by a consortium called Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd,” explained Jason Mann of BT. Arthur and the other antennas are being adapted for radio astronomy.

More on the achievements of Telstar-1 and Goonhilly Down, from its designers’ expansive unfulfilled ambition to its surprising variety of firsts and early, unanticipated demise, in’ Telstar at 50’ in the August issue of E&T – published 19 July 2012.

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