When we are talking about the space race, the Moon, and everything else in the sky, artificial satellites are rarely at the top of the list of subjects highly debated among us, common people. That probably shouldn’t be the case. At least, that’s what I thought the other day when I read the astronomical number of satellites that already surround Earth. It’s not healthy if you want my nonconsequential opinion. But how did that start?
Who Invented the Satellite?
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. The Space Age officially began at this crucial point in history, and it also set the stage for decades of scientific discovery and technical development.
Before the launch of Sputnik, the concept of creating artificial satellites had been around for many years. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian pioneer in rocket science, had mathematically shown the viability of an artificial satellite in 1903. However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that developments in rocketry and the growing public fascination with space flight made this idealized notion a reality.
Founded by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1952, the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a joint initiative to research Earth’s geophysical characteristics and events, prepared the ground for Sputnik’s launch. It was designed to capitalize on a time when solar activity would be at its highest. The Council planned to carry out tests using Earth-orbiting satellites throughout this period.
The United States made plans for its own satellite public in July 1955 in response to the IGY’s request for satellite proposals. The Vanguard satellite from the Naval Research Laboratory was selected for this. In the meantime, Sergei Korolev-led Soviet Union also made known that it planned to launch an IGY satellite.
By the middle of the 1950s, Aerospace engineer Sergei Korolev had already overseen the creation of the R7 intercontinental ballistic missile, a rocket capable of placing payloads into orbit. Although a scientific payload was originally intended for the Soviet satellite, Korolev decided to launch a smaller satellite without scientific equipment in order to beat the Americans. And so, he did it in october 1957.
Sputnik 1 was about the size of a beach ball, made of a glossy aluminum alloy, and weighed 184 pounds. Every 96 minutes, Sputnik orbited the Earth, sending out signals at 20 and 40 MHz that amateur radio operators could pick up.
The response from the US was more urgent than ever. The United States successfully launched Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, just a few months after Sputnik was sent into orbit–a bit more about that in the second part of this article.
The space race was really launched and the Soviet Union continued with more launches, including Sputnik 2 and Sputnik 3, the latter of which carried a dog named Laika as the first living thing to travel to space.
Who Invented the Communication Satellite?
Although the political consequences and the technological accomplishment of the launch of Sputnik 1 were initially the main points of attention, they also inspired creative thoughts about novel applications for satellite technology.
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke first suggested the concept of putting communication satellites into geostationary orbits in 1945, imagining a network of satellites that could relay signals all over the world. However, scientists didn’t start to fully study the potential of such an idea until the launch of Sputnik.
The Vanguard rocket that was carrying a satellite exploded on the launch pad in December 1957, causing a setback for the United States. However, using a Redstone rocket, the United States launched Explorer 1 successfully on January 31, 1958. By confirming the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts—doughnut-shaped areas of charged particles trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field—this spacecraft represented a significant scientific accomplishment.
Although the original satellites were primarily built for scientific study, it was becoming increasingly obvious that they might also be used as communication satellites. Not only was the race for space about getting there, but it was also about radically changing how people interacted with one another on a global scale.
A successful engineer and inventor, John Pierce was instrumental in bringing about the development of communication satellites as he introduced the idea of reflecting radio waves off satellites positioned in Earth’s orbit. Pierce worked for Hughes Aircraft, which received a NASA contract in 1962 to construct the Syncom (synchronous communication) series of satellites.
In terms of communication technology, the Syncom 2 introduction in July 1963 was a significant turning point. A geosynchronous orbit was attained by the satellite, which meant that it stayed motionless with respect to a fixed point on the surface of the planet. This made it possible for constant communication between various locations on the Earth.
The development of communication satellites by Syncom ushered in a new era of worldwide connectedness. The system was used by President John F. Kennedy to have a live conversation with the Nigerian Prime Minister, showcasing the usefulness of satellite-based communication.
Other businesses entered the market for communication satellites as technology developed. The Motorola-developed Iridium satellite constellation was one of the most challenging initiatives. With the help of 66 satellites placed in polar orbits, this constellation sought to offer worldwide communication coverage. Despite obstacles and financial issues, Iridium’s vision of a global network of satellites sparked new developments in the industry.
There were 11 330 distinct satellites orbiting the Earth as of the end of June 2023, according to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which is kept up to date by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).