The Commercial Significance of Geosynchronous Orbit

If there is one part of near-Earth orbit that is exceptionally worrisome from a space-environmental perspective, it is geosynchronous orbit. This is an orbit that is at a specific distance from Earth that allows an object in orbit to rotate with the Earth. Within this orbit an even more precise location makes objects geostationary. They stay in one specific place all the time. The geosynchronous orbit has proven indispensable for the geostationary communications satellite, the single most successful economic spin-off from the space program. Needless to say, it is equally of significance to military communication and navigation. Consequently, there has been a need for policy development to protect this critical part of the space environment.

It was Arthur Clarke in 1945 who published the first article detailing how this special orbit could be extraordinarily useful. By putting three satellites in geosynchronous orbit, he wrote, at just the right places, it would be possible to have global telecommunications coverage. Clarke pointed out that the curvature of the Earth's surface and atmospheric interface place limits on ground-based transmissions. Hence, the geosynchronous orbit would allow a huge breakthrough in global communications. For these insights, Clarke is frequently called the "Father of Satellite Communications."

Clarke's ideas had to await man's ability to escape the Earth's gravity. That came in 1957 with the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik. Sputnik triggered a number of U.S. space initiatives and ushered in the new era of satellite communication, particularly after NASA was created in 1958. The Defense Department was similarly active. The first U.S. communications project, known as Signal Communication by Orbital Relay Equipment (SCORE), was launched by DOD as a broadcast-only satellite in December, 1958. SCORE lasted only twelve days and could only send to Earth a pre-recorded message from President Eisenhower: "Peace on Earth, good will toward men" [16].

Meanwhile, the private sector, such as AT&T and Hughes Aircraft Company, also moved into R&D on communications satellites. In August 1960, the first artificial satellite that actually replayed a real-time voice message from Earth to orbit and back, the Echo 1, was launched by NASA. In October, the first artificial communications satellite that foreshadowed today's active satellite technology, Courier 1B, was designed and launched by the U.S. military.

As technology of communications satellites sped ahead, policy development lagged. For example, in 1960, AT&T filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to launch an experimental communications satellite with a view to rapidly implement an operational system. The U.S. government reacted with surprise because there was no policy in place to help execute the many actions related to the proposal. During 1961 and 1962, an intensive debate took place in the U.S. about public vs. private ownership and operations. This led to the passage of the Communications Satellite Act, which created a new entity known as the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) with ownership divided fifty-fifty between the public and the various telecommunications corporations.

Communications Satellite Corporation's initial capitalization of $200 million dollars was considered sufficient to build a system of dozens of satellites, as offered by a joint AT&T/Radio Corporation of America proposal. However, NASA recognized that the geosynchronous orbit, which was higher and would soon be attained by launch rockets, would require fewer satellites, as Clarke had forecast. Hence, it looked with favor at a more advanced satellite, the geosynchronous satellite proposed by Hughes, for the initial system. A policy difference lay with the fact that AT&T/RCA were willing to put more of their own money into their system in order to get "positioned" literally, in the lead of a new industry. To go to geosynchronous orbit meant more time and money had to be spent by the government to advance the launch and satellite technology. NASA, under its administrator, James Webb, was able and willing to make the public investment, with Hughes as a contractor, in an experimental system. In December, 1963, Syncom 2, built by Hughes, developed by both company and NASA funding, was launched as a prototype. It demonstrated the advantage of the geosynchronous orbit. In April, 1965, COMSAT's first satellite, and also the first operational geosynchronous communications satellite, Early Bird [known officially as International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium 1 (INTELSAT 1)], was launched. The age of communications satellites had begun.

Although COMSAT and the initial launch vehicles and satellites were American, other countries had been involved from the beginning in the new technology. By the time Early Bird was launched, communications earth stations already existed in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Brazil, and Japan. Negotiations in 1963 and 1964 resulted in a new international organization. Evolved from COMSAT, the U.S. manager of the emerging global system, the INTELSAT, was formed in August 1964. From a handful of members in 1965, INTELSAT has grown to a present day international consortium with over 110 nations and operates powerful communications satellites, using the geosynchronous and more specialized orbits. INTELSAT provides services to the entire globe, not just the industrialized nations.

While using the international system, many countries have developed domestic communications satellites with orbits appropriate to particular uses. The Soviet Union developed their first domestic satellite system, Molniya, in 1965 using a non-geosynchronous orbit. In 1972, Telesat Canada launched its first domestic communications satellite, Anik, to serve the vast Canadian continental area. The first U.S. domestic communications satellite was Western Union's Westar I, launched in April 1974. These countries have been joined by Indonesia in 1976, Japan in 1978, India in 1982, Brazil in 1985, Mexico in 1985, and many others. Each year from 10 to 20 communications satellites are launched into the increasingly crowded near-Earth space environment [17].

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