Satellites: Our Artificial Flying Orbs of Space

by James McBride

Like the millions of stars that surround the universe, Earth’s satellites cover the outer regions of our world and blanket the atmosphere with amplified radio waves. Communications satellites, the particular type of satellite I’ll be talking about, create communication channels between the transmitter and receiver at different spots on the Earth. With about 2000 satellites in operation and owned by both private and public companies, these satellites are the Earth’s life support when it comes to the operation of our satellite T.V’s, our radios, our internet via broadband data connections, and the military’s communicative abilities. Satellites allow for the world to function and communicate effectively across vast distances; at the time, surpassing any such communication technology that had come before.

To write about the intricacies of the satellite as a particular technology would be to engage in a one-way conversation that would solely involve technological jargon which would encompass everything from the differences between Direct Broadcast Satellites and Fixed Service Satellites to the particularities of linear polarization in relation to satellite transponders — and that’s no fun at all. Instead, this post will be about satellites as something much more than a technological invention and will hopefully be as engaging as a blog post on satellites has any right to be.

When the American author Edward Everett Hale first thought of the idea of communicating via a satellite way back in 1870, Hale posited in his short story that this would entail the construction of a 60m diameter satellite made of brick that would be then launched into Earth’s orbit where the brick moon would then aid mariners in navigation. People would use Morse code by jumping up and down on the satellite (yes, in space) in order to send out these navigational messages. The creative Hale, although a product of his time and place, was no astrophysicist but knew about the requirements of a type of communication that could be used easily by a large assortment of people where geography wasn’t an issue. Satellites, as an invention, held the key to communicating across large distances.

Figure 1: The picture on the cover of every Isaac Asimov Science Fiction novel. The satellite.

Hale was living in an age where the submarine communications cables (I still can’t believe that this is a thing, human beings are crazy), had just been placed deep atop the Ocean floor. Even with this incredibly ingenious invention, these undersea cables did not reach everywhere. This was especially the case back in Hale’s time as the introduction of something so new and technologically advanced and seemingly economically unfeasible led to Hale thinking about his brick-based satellite. The first satellite would enter earth’s atmosphere almost one hundred years after Hale’s short story with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1; in any case, I’d like to think that Hale had as much a hand in its creation than any number of the scientists that worked on Sputnik.

Sputnik was what would eventually be termed a passive satellite. These satellites did not re-amplify the signal they would receive from Earth and thus the re-transmission of the signal would be relatively weak. Due to this problem caused by the vast distances in between the Earth and an orbiting satellite, active satellites had to be created. The active satellite, upon receiving a signal from Earth, amplifies said signal before re-transmitting it to the ground which required a more powerful and technologically advanced satellite. Many of the satellites above Earth today are these active satellites and facilitate things like radio and satellite television.

Figure 2: A more in depth look at the details of the satellite.

One of the more important historical usages of communications satellites is in regards to long distance calling which constituted telephone calls from land-line telephones to the main earth communication station and then relayed to the communications satellite. This method is obsolete nowadays as our communications cables deep on the ocean floor have improved through the technological advance of fiber optics. There are still some places in the world however that are not connected by the submarine communication cables and so, in places like Easter Island for instance, one would still need to use a satellite phone. Oftentimes, planes and ships use a satellite phone as a backup in case of the malfunctioning of their primary device.

The age for mainstream satellite communication is usually placed right before or during the inception and further advancement of the internet. Our contemporary communicative satellites act as middle-men or reinforce a particular technology: primarily the aforementioned trinity of phone, television, and radio. In any case, there is much more to satellites then a concave disk-type structure that flies around the Earth trying not to hit any of the other satellites maneuvering at hilariously fast speeds. There is a history and story to every invention; and satellites are no different.