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The Tale of Telstar 2

David Dickinson, Correspondent
May 7, 2015, 19:43 UTC

Sen—Satellite technology, which delivers many services from radio and television to Global Positioning Systems and weather forecasting, is something that we take for granted these days. It is hard to imagine that this technology is just over half a century old, and much of it started life as military applications that didn’t really trickle out to the civilian consumer market until just the past few decades.

On May 7, 1963, Telstar 2 was launched atop a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Telstar 2 was the successor to the enormously successful Telstar 1 launched the year before, which had succumbed to transistor damage inflicted on the satellite during a high altitude nuclear test.

Such testing was not banned until the advent of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. You can still see amazing (and slightly frightening) footage on YouTube of high altitude tests such as Starfish Prime—which damaged seven satellites, including Telstar 1—which was conducted over the South Pacific on July 9, 1962.

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Telstar 2 was shielded against radiation damage, and also carried a scientific payload to explore and measure the Van Allen radiation belts discovered in 1958 by NASA’s first satellite, Explorer 1. This legacy continues today, with NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes launched in 2012.

Operated by AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratories, Telstar 2 was nearly identical to Telstar 1. Placed in an elliptical 10,800 kilometer by 960 kilometer orbit, Telstar 2 added to the long list of firsts in space conducted by the Telstar program, including the transmission of the first transatlantic color television broadcast (a speech by U.S. President John F. Kennedy), the first high speed data relay via satellite, and the first direct relay via communications satellite.

And just later the same year, the U.S. would also field the first geosynchronous communications satellite with the launch of Syncom 2 on July 16, 1963.


The 70 kilogram Telestar 2 satellite. Image credit: AT&T/Bell telephone Laboratories. Used with permission 

The rise of Telstar was a cultural phenomenon as well, and even inspired the reverb-fueled instrumental hit Telstar by The Tornados released in the summer of 1962. Telstar was actually one of the first UK hits to chart in the US Billboard Top 100, ahead of the UK invasion heralded by the Beatles in early 1964.


The orbit of Telstar 2. Image credit: Created by the author usingOrbitron

Telstar 2 was switched off on May 16, 1965. Amazingly, Telstars 1 and 2 remain in orbit today, and may be visible on a favorable perigee pass by astute ground observers using binoculars as a swiftly moving star.

Though the Telstars are great examples of ‘living relics’ from the early Space Age, the title for the oldest object still in orbit goes to the Vanguard 1 satellite launched in 1958. Also placed in a highly elliptical orbit, Vanguard 1 is expected to remain in orbit for another 200 years.

For satellite sleuths, Telstars 1 and 2 are listed as NORAD IDs 1962-029A(00340) and 1963-013A(00573) respectively, and amateur satellite spotters can look up favorable passes on Heavens-Above.


The launch of Telstar 1 from Cape Canveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 17B . Image credit: NASA

It is hard to imagine today just what a sensation the first Telstar satellites caused. Today, the launch of a communications satellite is seen as routine, and barely makes the news. As you tune in to XM radio or use Skype overseas today, be sure to remember those early communications satellites that paved the way.

Intro image courtesy of Denise Panjik-Dale