A communications satellite (sometimes abbreviated to SATCOM) is an artificial satellite stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications. Modern communications satellites use a variety of orbits including geostationary orbits, Molniya orbits, other elliptical orbits and low (polar and non-polar) Earth orbits.
For fixed (point-to-point) services, communications satellites provide a microwave radio relay technology complementary to that of submarine communication cables. They are also used for mobile applications such as communications to ships, vehicles, planes and hand-held terminals, and for TV and radio broadcasting, for which application of other technologies, such as cable, is impractical or impossible.
A satellite in a geostationary orbit appears to be in a fixed position to an earth-based observer. A geostationary satellite revolves around the earth at a constant speed once per day over the equator.
The geostationary orbit is useful for communications applications because ground based antennas, which must be directed toward the satellite, can operate effectively without the need for expensive equipment to track the satellite’s motion. Especially for applications that require a large number of ground antennas (such as direct TV distribution), the savings in ground equipment can more than justify the extra cost and onboard complexity of lifting a satellite into the relatively high geostationary orbit.
The concept of the geostationary communications satellite was first proposed by Arthur C. Clarke, building on work by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and on the 1929 work by Herman Potočnik (writing as Herman Noordung) Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – der Raketen-motor. In October 1945 Clarke published an article titled “Extra-terrestrial Relays” in the British magazine Wireless World. The article described the fundamentals behind the deployment of artificial satellites in geostationary orbits for the purpose of relaying radio signals. Thus Arthur C. Clarke is often quoted as being the inventor of the communications satellite.
The first truly geostationary satellite launched in orbit was the Syncom 3, launched on August 19, 1964. It was placed in orbit at 180° east longitude, over the International Date Line. It was used that same year to relay experimental television coverage on the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan to the United States, the first television transmission sent over the Pacific Ocean.
Shortly after Syncom 3, Intelsat I, aka Early Bird, was launched on April 6, 1965 and placed in orbit at 28° west longitude. It was the first geostationary satellite for telecommunications over the Atlantic Ocean.
On November 9, 1972, North America’s first geostationary satellite serving the continent, Anik A1, was launched by Telesat Canada, with the United States following suit with the launch of Westar 1 by Western Union on April 13, 1974.
On December 19, 1974, the first geostationary communications satellite in the world to be three-axis stabilized was launched: the Franco-German Symphonie.
After the launches of Telstar, Syncom 3, Early Bird, Anik A1, and Westar 1, RCA Americom (later GE Americom, now SES Americom) launched Satcom 1 in 1975. It was Satcom 1 that was instrumental in helping early cable TV channels such as WTBS (now TBS Superstation), HBO, CBN (now ABC Family), and The Weather Channel become successful, because these channels distributed their programming to all of the local cable TV headends using the satellite. Additionally, it was the first satellite used by broadcast television networks in the United States, like ABC, NBC, and CBS, to distribute programming to their local affiliate stations. Satcom 1 was widely used because it had twice the communications capacity of the competing Westar 1 in America (24 transponders as opposed to the 12 of Westar 1), resulting in lower transponder-usage costs. Satellites in later decades tended to have even higher transponder numbers.
By 2000, Hughes Space and Communications (now Boeing Satellite Development Center) had built nearly 40 percent of the more than one hundred satellites in service worldwide. Other major satellite manufacturers include Space Systems/Loral, Orbital Sciences Corporation with the STAR Bus series, Lockheed Martin (owns the former RCA Astro Electronics/GE Astro Space business), Northrop Grumman, Alcatel Space, now Thales Alenia Space, with the Spacebus series, and EADS Astrium.
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