40 Years of Satellite Communications – Past, Present and Especially the Future

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Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Forecasts are always difficult — especially about the future.” No one, not even satcom sage Sir Arthur Clarke, could have predicted the incredible success that has made satellite communications today the No. 1 space industry, with over $80 billion in annual revenues as of 2004 — and these revenues based on Futron and Satellite Industry Association projections will grow above $100 billion in the not-too-distant future.

2005 is a milestone year for the satellite industry. It was amazingly 60 years ago in 1945 that Arthur C. Clarke, then just 26 years old and newly retired from the U.K. Radar Establishment, in a Wireless World article set forth the basic concepts of a worldwide satellite network. Sir Arthur demonstrated that if operated in geosynchronous orbit, three spacecraft could provide global coverage.

In addition, it was just 40 years ago this year that commercial satellite communications first began with the launch of Early Bird by Intelsat — a tiny 85 pound coffee can of a satellite with 240 voice circuits or one low-quality black-and-white television channel. By comparison today, an Intelsat 10 satellite, using the latest digital technology could, if desired, support about 1,700 high-quality color television channels. It is very hard to name any industry outside the information and communications technology arena that can claim a 1,700-fold increase in productivity over the last four decades.

It was also in 1965 that the U.S. Department of Defense deployed the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System in low Earth orbit to start military satellite system services as well.

Clarke, in 1945, envisioned that this geosynchronous system would require on board astronauts to replace the radio valves, since radio tubes in those days had very short lifetimes. Thus, he did not attempt to patent the idea. Only a few years later, however, the transistor was born at Bell Labs, and satellite communications and high-speed computer systems suddenly became a real possibility.

By the early 1960s we had experimental systems such as Echo, Relay, Telstar and Syncom. Then Early Bird went into service in April of 1965, almost exactly 40 years ago.

There are those who wring their hands about the future of satellites. They observe that fiber-optic systems now operate in the terabit per second range and have reduced the cost of high-speed interconnections to a few dollars a year. These doubters of the satellite communications industry speculate that the age of satellites has peaked or may even be in decline. But my fearless prediction as a futurist, since it is safely some decades away, is that the satellite industry will be alive and well 40 years hence in 2045.

The mushrooming of satellite services, such as fixed, mobile, television and audio broadcasting, defense information and communications technology services, store and forward, etc. will continue apace in the years ahead. Satcom services likely will merge with space navigation and remote sensing services as the fields of geomatics and satellite communications merge.

One of the keys to the future growth of space communications will be the continual shrinking in cost and size of multi-use terminals. These user-seductive devices will promote global mobility for users in developed and developing countries alike. We will see laptops and palmtops, with specialized cards and smart satellite antennas , whose costs will be measured in perhaps a few hundred rather than thousands of dollars. Controlling content access and costs will far outweigh concerns over hardware.

The new smart satellite-based user devices will aid communications, news and entertainment, healthcare and education, government services, defense operations and much, much more.

Fiber systems may become faster, smarter and more capable but they will never duplicate the mobility found in satellites and the newly emerging high-altitude platform systems . In 1978, or 27 years ago, Arthur C. Clarke once again foretold the future when he talked about satellite-based telecomputers that in cost, size and complexity “will have more to do with Milton-Bradley and toy makers than IBM.”

Takashi Iida, former president of Japan’s Communications Research Laboratories; Edward Ashford, former head of the European Space Agency’s communications satellite research program; and myself recently completed a book for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on 21st Century satellite communications.

In this book we detail the exciting new satellite technologies, applications and markets that the next 40 years will bring. We are hopefully wise enough to know that the technologies, markets and services we discuss are conceptual and that actual systems will look much different. We know that some of our forecasted technologies and systems may take longer to accomplish than we project.

Yet there will nevertheless ultimately be new and more cost-effective launch systems such as nuclear-powered ion propulsion or space elevators or tether-based networks. We will see polyimide or even new piezo-electric materials for self-deploying antenna systems — several acres in size but weighing only a ton or so. But what we clearly see is a pathway forward to many exciting new innovations in the satellite arena.

Some of our predictions, such as a ring of laser-based satellites, actually seem ahead of schedule as can be seen in the planned new U.S. Transformational Satellite program that may be deployed as soon as 2013.

In all this looking to the future, there are many key people that we should look back on in order to thank them for their pioneering role in the satellite industry over the past 40 years. These are the people that brought to life new satellite technology or systems or markets.

Some of the most outstanding were Harold Rosen, father of Syncom and Early Bird, and John Pierce, father of Echo and Telstar. Then there were Wilbur Pritchard and Burt Edelson of the Comsat Labs; Rene Collette, father of the Experimental Technology Satellites of the European Space Agency; and Kobayashi, Sekimoto, Miya and Iida of Japan. Others such as Tom Whitehead, Santiago Astrain, Andrea Caruso, Olof Lundberg, John Puente, Rene Anselmo, Ray Leopold, Sidney Topol and Eddy Hartenstein also led the satellite and the ground-segment industry in totally new directions.

As we look forward to an even brighter future with new launch systems, new satellite technology, applications, services and exciting new user-seductive hardware, we really should utter four simple words to the person who really started it all — an icon that I have had the pleasure to know for nearly 30 years: “Thank you Arthur Clarke.”

Joseph N. Pelton is the director of the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University in Washington and the founder of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.