Whatever happened to... Telstar

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The Independent Online
The Yves of a New Dawn

Thirty five years ago this month, a picture of the chairman of the American Telegraph and Telephone Company in Maine was bounced off the new telecommunications satellite Telstar, more than 7,000 miles above the Earth's surface, and picked up, way over the horizon, in Europe. France sent back footage of a live concert of Yves Montand singing to America, while Britain sent over a test card signal and a greeting from a civil servant. Telstar had been launched into space from the eastern seaboard in early June, and by the end of the month 100 million viewers in 16 countries were watching US TV programmes live.

A Bomb Named Starfish

Nasa's newest satellites now measure around 47 ft wide and have solar cells that produce 1.5 Kilowatts, but Telstar was tiny. A sphere, just 34 inches across and weighing 171 pounds, it revolved at 200 rpm and produced under 15 watts. The day before Telstar was launched, the US had conducted a nuclear test in space, code-named Starfish. Telstar's orbit took it regularly through the belt of radiation that this caused, and within six months, the satellite was rendered useless. JFK's administration had already sent up replacements, and so Telstar, hit by the odd meteorite and stray piece of debris, was left slowly to disintegrate in its eternal orbit.

Space Jam

Telstar is now just one of more than 70,000 large pieces of junk careering around Earth. There are also at least half a million objects the size of an orange or smaller - dropped screwdrivers and bags of excreta. Last August, a French military satellite hit a large chunk of a 10-year-old Ariane rocket, causing the satellite to lose its sense of direction. Spacewalking is now kept to an absolute minimum to avoid astronauts needlessly having holes drilled through them - the tiniest metal fragment can fly, frictionless, at thousands of miles per hour.

Eight Billion Dollar Bill

Bill Gates' plans for a $8bn network of Internet satellites were approved a few weeks ago. Telstar's grandchildren, a network of 324 new satellites, should mean that computers, especially in places too isolated or poor to afford miles of fibre-optic cables - will be able to communicate about 60 times faster. Telstar was a huge success; without it we wouldn't now have instant world-wide 24 hour news or, indeed, topless darts. The little sphere has made the globe seem smaller.