FCC Satellite Learning Center Masthead
So, What Is A Satellite Anyway?
Who Invented Satellites?
How Big Are Satellites?
What Are The Parts of A Satellite?
Build A Satellite

Who Invented Satellites?

No one knows who first had the idea of satellites, but the first human-made object put into space was called “Sputnik,” which was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 . “Sputnik” means “companion” or “fellow traveler” in Russian. It was launched into a low-Earth orbit barely above the Earth's atmosphere. It was not used for two-way communications since it could only transmit a signal to Earth.

photo image of Sputnik
Courtesy of NASA. All rights reserved

Many satellites followed Sputnik into low-Earth orbit. The first satellite dedicated to communications was called ECHO and was launched by the United States in 1960. It was a “passive” satellite that connected users by bouncing radio signals off of its surface. It did not transmit radio signals itself.

 photo of ECHO
Courtesy of NASA. All rights reserved

The first “active” communication satellites were the TELSTAR and RELAY satellites, which were launch by the United States in 1962. These satellites received radio signals from Earth and amplified the signals (that is, made them stronger) before re-transmitting them back to Earth. The amplification of the radio signal made these communications more reliable and robust than communications by passive satellites.

 photo of TELSTAR
Courtesy of NASA. All rights reserved

relay image
Courtesy of NASA. All rights reserved

The first satellite to use geostationary orbit for communications was called “Syncom” and was launched by the United States in 1963. Syncom weighed 78 pounds and was 28 inches in diameter.

Courtesy of Boeing Satellite Systems. All rights reserved

A geostationary satellite orbits the Earth at a much higher altitude than low-Earth orbit satellites. The concept of geostationary satellites used for communications is credited to an article written in 1945 by Arthur C. Clarke in the British radio magazine Wireless World . In the article, Clarke suggested that a satellite in geostationary orbit would appear fixed in the sky with respect to a certain point on the Earth's surface, and that a network of three satellites in such an orbit could enable communications to practically any point in the world, except the polar regions. For this reason, Arthur C. Clarke is often credited as the inventor of satellite communications.