Saturday, April 25, 2015

When geostationary orbit became real: the cultural significance of Syncom 3

Syncom 3 was the first true geostationary (GEO) communications satellite, launched in 1963, nearly two decades after Arthur C. Clarke predicted the potential of GEO for telecommunications. Prior to the Syncom series, communication satellites were located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where they required massive terrestrial infrastructure. Syncom 3 was aimed at providing live television coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, as well as carrying telephone transmissions. But its uses were not confined to the civil sphere. Syncom 3 and its geosynchronous sister Syncom 2 were the primary communications link between South East Asia and the western Pacific in the Vietnam War.
Syncom 3
Image courtesy of NASA
Only six years after the first satellite, Syncom already shows how satellite design has moved past the early templates of the baby moon (Sputnik and Vanguard) and the rocket (Explorer 1). The Syncom series were the first spin-stabilised satellites. The basic design is still in use, for example, in the Aussat and Optus B series.
Syncom 3 is the ancestor of the satellites that provide telecommunication services today. Technologically, Syncom 3’s design and mission helped shape the world of the second millennium where nearly everyone is within reach of almost every point on the globe, and transnational entities flicker and spark into existence between hardware on Earth and in orbit.
Syncom 3 was a major step in the process of globalisation that has been developing since the 1400s when navigation connected previously separate old and new worlds. For some, globalisation has meant new possibilities and opportunities; for others, it has meant the erosion of identity in contexts where colonial exploitation has already exacted a high cost.

Note: This is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2005 The Archaeology of Orbital Space.
In Australian Space Science Conference 2005; pages: [338-357]. Melbourne: RMIT University.
Clarke, A. C., 1945 Extraterrestrial relays: can rocket stations give worldwide radio
coverage? Wireless World, October, 1945, pp 305-308

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