Telstar was the first active communications satellite (launched in 1962), and the first satellite designed to transmit telephone and high-speed data communications. Its name is used to this day for a number of television broadcasting satellites.
Belonging to AT&T, the original Telstar was part of a multi-national agreement between AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National PTT (Post, Telegraph & Telecom Office) to develop experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean. Bell Labs also built the Andover Earth Station in Andover, Maine, and it held a contract with NASA, reimbursing the agency three million dollars for each of the two launchs, independent of success.
The satellite was built by a team at Bell Telephone Laboratories, including John Robinson Pierce who created the project, Rudy Kompfner who invented the traveling wave tube transponder used in the satellite, and James M. Early who designed the transistors and solar panels for it. The satellite is roughly spherical, is 34.5 inches (880 mm) long, and it weighs about 170 pounds (77 kg). Its dimensions were limited by what would fit in one of NASA's Delta rockets. Telstar was spin-stabilized, and its outer surface was covered with solar cells to generate electrical power. The power produced was a tiny 14 watts.
Telstar was equipped with a helical antenna which received microwave signals from a ground station, then amplified and retransmitted the signals. The transmissions were made from a series of feed horns around the satellite's "equator". The electronics switched the feed horns as the satellite rotated.
Unlike most of today's communications satellites, Telstar was on an elliptical orbit, which meant the ground antenna had to track the satellite as it came around the world approximately every 2.5 hours. Because the transmitting and receiving radio systems on board the satellite were not nearly as powerful or capable as ones on today's satellites, the ground antenna had to be huge. Morimi Iwama and Jan Norton of Bell Laboratories were in charge of designing and building the electrical portions of the system that steered the antennas. The aperture of the antennas were 3600 square feet. The antennas were 177 feet long and weighed 380 tons. The antennas were housed in radomes the size of a 14-story office building. The challenge was to steer the huge antenna to track the satellite that moved up to 1.5 degrees per second with a pointing error of less than a .06 degree.
The main British ground station was at Goonhilly Downs in southwestern England, and it was used by the BBC. It was the international coordinator and the standards 525/405 conversion equipment (filling a large room) was researched and developed by the BBC and located in the BBC Television Centre London.
Launched by NASA aboard a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, Telstar was the first privately sponsored space launch. A medium-altitude satellite, Telstar was placed in an elliptical orbit (completed once every 2 hours and 37 minutes), revolving at a 45 degree angle above the equator. Because of this, its availability for transatlantic signals was 20 minutes in each orbit that passed over the Atlantic Ocean.
Telstar 1 relayed its first television pictures (of a flag outside Andover Earth Station) to Centre de télécommunication spatiale de Pleumeur-Bodou on the date of its launch. Almost two weeks later, on July 23, it relayed the first live transatlantic television signal. The first broadcast was to have been remarks by President John F. Kennedy, but the signal was acquired before the President was ready, so the lead-in time was filled with a short segment of a televised major league baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. (Box Score) The batter Tony Taylor was seen hitting the ball to the right fielder George Altman. During that evening, Telstar 1 also relayed the first telephone call to be transmitted through space, and it successfully transmitted faxes, data, and both live and taped television, including the first live transmission of television across an ocean (to Centre de télécommunication spatiale de Pleumeur-Bodou, in France; ). President Kennedy gave a live transatlantic press conference via Telstar 1.
Telstar 1, which had ushered in a new age of the benevolent use of technology, became a victim of technology during the Cold War. The day before Telstar 1 was launched, the United States had tested a high-altitude nuclear bomb (called Starfish Prime) which energized the Earth's Van Allen Belt where Telstar 1 went into orbit. This vast increase in radiation, combined with subsequent high-altitude blasts, including a Soviet test in October, overwhelmed Telstar's fragile transistors; it went out of service in early December, but was restarted by a workaround in early January 1963. The additional radiation associated with its return to full sunlight once again caused a transistor failure, this time irreparably, and Telstar 1 went out of service on February 21, 1963.
According to the US Space Objects Registry, Telstar 1 was still in orbit as of March 2008.
Experiments continued, and by 1964, two Telstars, two Relay units (from RCA), and two Syncom units (from the Hughes Aircraft Company) had operated successfully in space. Syncom 2 was the first geosynchronous satellite and its successor, Syncom 3, broadcast pictures from the 1964 Summer Olympics. The first commercial geosynchronous satellite was Intelsat I ("Early Bird") launched in 1965.
These were similar to the previous Telstar satellites in name only. The later ones were much more advanced electronically and mechanically, geosynchronous satellites, and built for commercial applications, and not just experimental or developmental satellites.
The next wave, starting with Telstar 401 came in 1993, which was lost in 1997 due to a magnetic storm, and then Telstar 402 was launched but destroyed shortly after in 1994. It was replaced in 1995 by Telstar 402R, eventually renamed Telstar 4.
Telstar 10 was launched in China in 1997 by APT Satellite Company, Ltd.
In 2003, Telstars 4–8 and 13 — Loral Skynet's North American fleet — were sold to Intelsat. Telstar 4 suffered complete failure prior to the handover. The others were renamed the Intelsat Americas 5, 6, etc. At the time of the sale, Telstar 8 was still under construction by Space Systems/Loral, and it was finally launched on June 23, 2005 by Sea Launch.
Telstar 18 was launched in June 2004 by Sea Launch. The upper stage of the rocket underperformed, but the satellite used its significant stationkeeping fuel margin to achieve its operational geostationary orbit. It has enough on-board fuel remaining that will allow it to exceed its specified 13-year design life.
There is a fireworks company called Telstar Display Fireworks
Telstar was mentioned in the first episode of The Addams Family television series pilot that aired Sept. 18, 1964. Mr. Addams mentions his friend Gumba in Nairobi who could hurt the school board member, suggesting they use Telstar to call him.
A high school in Bethel, Maine, is named after the satellite.
There is a Spanish company called Telstar. It is a manufacturer of freeze-dryers and other high-technology equipment.
Project: Telstar is an anthology of robot-and space-themed comics published in 2003 by AdHouse Books.
Telstar Drug was the name of a drug store in Calgary, Canada. The store's roof featured a neon sign in the shape of a rocket with the satellite on its nose. After the store closed, the sign was taken down and put on permanent display in the Glenbow Museum.
The Telstar is also a type of Trampoline in the United Kingdom.