From Sputnik to TV Screens: A Brief History of Satellites3 min read

Chances are your life has been affected in some way by satellite technology – maybe you’ve zoomed into your house on an internet map, or perhaps you’ve got satellite TV. Read on for a brief history of this important technology.

Writers and thinkers have been pondering the possibility of sending artificial satellites into space as long ago as 1728 when Isaac Newton published his book on physics, ‘A Treatise of the System of the World’. In this book Newton included a thought experiment based on gravity that showed it was possible for a manmade object to orbit the earth. The scientific theory of satellites had been established, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that satellites moved from the realm of the imagination into reality.

The early days

On October 4, 1957 the Russians launched a shiny, basketball-sized packet of technology called Sputnik 1 into orbit. The small radio-transmitting device was the world’s first man-made satellite, and its launch marked the beginning of the space age.

The Russian success came as the cold war was raging and the US scrambled to launch a satellite of their own to match the achievements of the USSR. The launch of the Vanguard 1 in December 1957 marked America’s first attempt to gain ground on Russia, but it was a spectacular failure. The combination of Russian success and American failure spurred the US into swift action and in January 1958 the states launched their first successful satellite, the Explorer 1.

Swift developments

The space race had begun and over the next couple of decades a number of important incidents took place:

  • August, 1959:    The US Explorer 6 satellite takes the first photograph of the earth.
  • October, 1960: The first communications satellite, Courier 1B, was launched by the US.
  • April, 1961: Russian Juri Gagarin becomes the first man to have travelled to space.
  • April, 1962: Ariel 1 is launched, a joint venture between the US and UK that marked the first European involvement in the space race.
  • July, 1962: The Telstar satellite is launched by NASA and successfully relays TV pictures, telephone calls, fax images and live television broadcasts from America to Europe.
  • July, 1969: America puts the first man on the moon.
  • April, 1971: USSR launches the Saljut 1 space station.
  • May, 1973: The US responds with the Skylab space station.

The technology of satellites and space travel advanced at an unprecedented rate, driven by international competition as both America and the USSR sought to become the most technologically advanced nation in the world.

The commercial angle

Even as the superpowers of the world were locked in this battle for prestige and strategic edge, many in the business world were keen to capitalise on the opportunities offered by satellites and space. Communications, weather monitoring and television signal broadcasting satellites started to be used by commercial organisations and the number of satellites being launched into orbit continued to grow at an exponential rate.

More companies than ever began offering satellite services, and the benefits of space borne technology started to be more widely felt. In the 90s, satellite TV as we now know it was launched, allowing individual households to directly access services from technologies perched at the very edge of space.


Bringing you up to date

Technological advances have continued to develop at a rapid pace over the past decade or so and now the satellites circling the globe are packed with cutting edge systems – a far cry from the rudimentary Sputnik 1. The number of man-made objects in orbit has also increased exponentially over the years, with well over a thousand active satellites circling the planet.

With that kind of coverage, the influence of satellites on our lives is enormous. From telephone calls to GPS to interactive TV, satellite technology is vital to a massive range of communication technologies these days. In the future, this is only likely to increase.

How does satellite technology affect your life?

Article by Mhairi Steele


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Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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