Telecommunications satellites and space exploration

Husain Sumra profile image February 24, 2024 | 3 min read

A century or more ago, communicating with someone in another country could take hours, days or even weeks, but today we can send a message to anyone in the world in mere seconds. A large reason why is the development of telecommunications satellites, which orbit high above us and can bounce text, audio and video data around the globe in milliseconds. Innovations in space travel and satellite technology have contributed to the highly interconnected world we live in today. And research continues to push this technology forward, making communication more efficient and more accessible.

History of telecommunications satellites

The history of satellite communication is inextricably linked to the history of space exploration. The concept of placing satellites in orbit was popularized in works of science fiction by Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke, but ididn’t become reality until the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first human-made satellite. Sputnik couldn’t do much, but it did send a radio signal back to Earth that could be used to track its orbit; examining this data allowed scientists to learn a little about characteristics of the upper atmosphere. However, Sputnik’s biggest impact was not related to what it could do, but to what it represented. It showed that launching objects into orbit was possible, and it sparked the formation of NASA and rapid advances in space research and technologies.

Just a few years later, in 1962, NASA launched Telstar 1, the first satellite that could be used to transmit telephone and television signals from one continent to another. This was also the first space mission in which the government and private companies worked together: Telstar was developed by AT&T. Telstar 2, launched in 1963, was followed by 1965’s Intelsat 1, the first commercial satellite placed into geosynchronous orbit. And once a few more satellites were in orbit, broadcasters around the world joined together to create the first live, global television production. Called Our World, the 1967 event used four satellites to bring performances from 14 countries to an estimated audience of 400 million people around the globe. It included the first performance of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” commissioned for this event.

Parts of a communications satellite

A modern communications satellite is built starting with its main structure, which provides a framework for mounting and protecting the other components. It houses batteries, transponders and control systems that people on Earth can use to monitor and direct the satellite as needed. Some satellites have propulsion systems that can be used to adjust their position. Satellites also have antennas, which they use to receive and transmit data. And many satellites have solar panels to collect energy to power their functions.

How satellites are used today

As the field of space exploration has developed and grown, more and more advanced telecommunications satellites have been deployed, and today, they are essential tools that play a role in many parts of our lives. Satellites allow us to broadcast information or entertainment to anywhere in the world, collect weather data that helps to keep people safe from natural disasters, and transmit telephone and internet signals to and from people in remote areas. Satellites also collect data for scientific research and for military operations. And they help us to find our way from place to place using GPS-enabled devices.

The future of satellite communication

In our increasingly connected world, the evolution of satellite technology continues to bring more innovative and efficient ways to transmit and use information. Corporate ventures like Amazon’s Project Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink are blanketing Earth with networks of smaller satellites in low orbit that can bring high-speed internet access to more people in areas where traditional cables can’t easily reach. Satellites are also gaining the ability to integrate with land-based data networks as well as a vast array of “smart” sensors and devices. Research is also finding new ways to transmit information over even greater distances, including through deep space. Someday, we might even be able to make a phone call to Mars as easily as we can call a friend on Earth.

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