My readers, please, refer to the concluding part of my 4-series article titled “Apollo 11: What next After 50 Years of Man’s Terrestrial Romance with Space?” published between August and September in this Column. Somewhere in that article I wrote “On launching satellite for communication, this column will feature several breakthroughs made in communication satellites another time”. I think the time has come to fulfill that pledge. The outcomes of the satellite technology are positively affecting all facets of human developments in what we call “global village”. An enormous thank to “Information and Communication Technology (ICT)”. I am sure it may interest many to know the antecedents and advances of the ICT revolution in today’s world. Although, this subject is highly technical, sometimes incomprehensive and boring to people who are not scientifically grounded but care will be taken to simplify the technical jargons of the ICT gurus for the benefits of others.
One of the most amazing natural creations in planetary world is space, a region beyond the earth’s atmosphere or even beyond the solar system. Some of the contents of the space, billions of kilometers away from the earth are seen with naked eyes while millions of others are seen with the aid of telescopes and yet several others in billions are never seen. The wonders of nature, the Omnipotent perfect creation of the universe. Mysteries surrounding the space and its contents motivated the development of space science that gave birth to space technology. Today, Space technology is referred to an aerospace industry for use in spaceflight, satellites, or space exploration. It is in this space a huge man-made structure called ‘satellite’ or spacecraft is placed and operated by mankind and for the benefit of mankind. A satellite is an object in space that moves around a bigger object. In space, there are two types of satellites: natural, as in the case of moon orbiting the Earth and artificial as in case of International Space Station orbiting the Earth. Before sixty years ago, nobody was thinking of artificial satellite in space until in the year, 1957.
Historically, Russia was the first country to send artificial satellite into space. The satellite was a beach-ball-size probe nicknamed “Sputnik”. Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4th, 1957. The launching of Sputnik shocked the world especially the developed countries, as it was believed then that Russia was not technologically capable of sending satellites into space. The Sputnik launch sent a shockwave through the American public, who then believed they were more scientifically superior compared to the other countries especially Russia, which then Soviet Union. This was in addition to American economic boom amid a post-war. With a single shot of Sputnik into space, the Soviet Union not only launched the first artificial satellite but also officially inaugurated what was then termed a “space race” with the United States. The space race was a series of competitive technology demonstrations between the United States and the Soviet Union, aiming to show superiority in spaceflight. It was an outgrowth of the mid-20th-century Cold War, a tense global conflict that pitted the ideologies of capitalism and communism against one another. Consequently, the Russian satellite launch made American public reflected the echoes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, sixteen years earlier. Americans felt that the Soviets were behind the U.S. technologically after the devastation of World War II, so the successful satellite launching by Russia means a lot to Americans. Being a period of fear and anxiety, could Soviet Unions launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons at the United States through Satellite? Space race heightened the intensity of the cold war. Well, the cold war came and gone without casualties, the world continued to enjoy the unlimited benefits of satellite technology. Now, what are the breakthroughs in communication satellite?
Every man-made satellite consists of four main parts; a power system or prime mover, which could be solar or nuclear source, a means of controlling its altitude, an antenna to transmit and receive information, and a payload such as a camera or particle detector to collect information. With these components, satellites function effectively over long period from months to years uninterrupted. Broadly, satellites are used functionally for improved weather forecasts for large areas on earth, land watching to track series of changes in forests, water and other parts of Earth’s surface over time and communication services. As discussed in my previous articles, satellites are basically classified into three categories depending on their distance from the earth surface. There are Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites with a range of distance between 160 to 2,000km from the earth surface, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites with a distance between 2,000 to 35,000Km and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites with a distance over 35,000 km from the earth surface. GEO satellites are seen to be stationary because their movement is the same relative to the earth’s rotation. They revolve around the earth at 360o in every 24 hours.
In the last five centuries, amongst all the modern advancements, space technology has been the most impactful on humanity with trillion of US Dollars investment. In all aspects of the space technology, communication satellite has probably had more effect on the average person than the rest. Satellite communications is truly the only commercial space technology that generates billions of dollars annually in sales of products and services all over the world.
There are three types of communication services that satellites provide: telecommunications, broadcasting, and data communications. Telecommunication services include telephone calls and services provided to telephone companies, as well as wireless, mobile, and cellular network providers. What is historical antecedent of using satellite for communication services?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/technology/satellite-communication/Satellite-applications), the world’s first active communications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched in 1962. Telesat’s predecessors at AT&T and Bell Laboratories built the satellite. During its seven months in operation, Telstar 1 dazzled the world with live images of sports, entertainment and news. It was a simple single-transponder low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite, but its technology of receiving radio signals from the earth’s surface, and then amplified and retransmitted the signals over a large portion of the earth’s surface, set the standard for all communications satellites that followed. As discussed in this column, within decades between the 1960s and 1970s, advances in satellite performance came quickly and a global industry began to develop. Satellites were mainly used at first for international and long-distanced telephone traffic and distribution of select television programming, both internationally and domestically. In 1973 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation began distributing its video programming to Canadian customers using Telesat’s Anik A satellite. Then in 1975 HBO began distributing its video programming to US customers by satellite. The commercial and technical success of these ventures led to a greater use and acceptance of satellite broadcasting. By the 1990s, satellite communications became the primary means of distributing TV programs around the world.
In a relatively short span of time, satellite technology has developed from the experimental with Sputnik in 1957 to the sophisticated and powerful technology applicable in all aspects of human endvors. Future communication satellites will have more onboard processing capabilities, more power, and larger-aperture antennas that will enable satellites to handle more bandwidth. There is likely to have further improvements in satellites’ propulsion and power systems will increase their service life to 20–30 years from the current 10–15 years. In addition, other technical innovations such as low-cost reusable launch vehicles are in development. With increasing video, voice, and data traffic requiring larger amounts of bandwidth, there is no dearth of emerging applications that will drive demand for the satellite services in the years to come. The demand for more bandwidth, coupled with the continuing innovation and development of satellite technology, will ensure the long-term viability of the commercial satellite industry well into the 21st century.
In the next few years, there will more people in the world needing communication services at cheaper rate and higher speed, on real-time. The scientists working tirelessly will come out with more advancement in communication satellites to meet the demands of the teeming world population. Nigeria, as a nation should key into this technological breakthrough for the benefits of Nigerian and in deed the entire African continent.