Editors' note: This is part of a series examining 50 years of space exploration.
The satellite industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the 50 years since the Russian government launched Sputnik, generating more than $100 billion annually.
The technology itself has improved exponentially, offering a slew of commercial communications services that were once only dreamed of. But as the satellite industry matures, it faces issues in the sky and on the ground that could dampen growth.
While Sputnik ignited the world's imagination over the possibilities for space travel and the future of communications, it was Congress' passage of the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 that paved the way for commercialization of the satellite industry.
On April 6, 1965, the Communications Satellite Corporation, or Comsat, a government-backed telecommunications company, launched into space Early Bird, the first commercial satellite from Cape Canaveral in Florida. A new age of communications had begun. By the end of 1965, Early Bird had provided 150 telephone "half-circuits" and 80 hours of television service.
The battery-operated Sputnik 1, whose signal lasted only 22 days after launch, transmitted a few blips of radio noise from the low reaches of the earth's orbit. Today, much of the world's television and radio programming is disseminated by satellite.
Satellites also help provide much of the world's long-distance telecommunications both for traditional fixed lines as well as for cell phones, especially in hard-to-reach places like islands in the Pacific or the mountains of Central Asia. And without satellite technology the new location-based services that cell phone operators are starting to offer would not exist.
While the industry has enjoyed tremendous growth over the past four decades, there are issues looming on the horizon that could stunt its future growth.
First, there are questions surrounding the management of orbiting space junk generated by retired satellites. While not a major threat at the moment, some experts believe that, in the future, too many spent satellites could interfere with functioning commercial satellites or even harm manned space missions.
The reason is simple: fast-flying particles in space, even as small as a coin, can cause great damage to rockets. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking more than 13,000 human-made objects larger than 10 centimeters or four inches in diameter orbiting Earth. These objects include debris from spacecrafts, rocket bodies and dismantled satellites. But if older satellites are retired properly to the "satellite graveyard" in the outer reaches of Earth's orbit, it helps reduce the threat of some space junk from interfering with functional satellites and manned spacecrafts.
In 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ordered tough new measures governing how "geostationary" satellites, or satellites orbiting at 36,000 kilometers above the equator, are disposed of by their owners. Under these rules, all U.S.-licensed satellites launched after March 18, 2002, will have to be placed into so-called graveyard orbits between 200 and 300 kilometers above the geostationary arc, where most commercial satellites operate.
"It's a junkyard up there for sure," said Bruce Elbert, president of Application Technology Strategy, a satellite communications consulting firm. "But these satellites are positioned very far apart with the closest ones still about 50 miles apart. The real issue is that there are now 240 good satellites working, and most of the premium positions are already taken up. So if some new killer application is developed and we need a lot more satellites, it might be hard to accommodate them."
The satellite industry also faces threats on the ground, primarily from new terrestrial wireless technologies, such as WiMax. Many satellite operators use radio spectrum in what's called the C-band to transmit signals to and from base stations on Earth. Cable and satellite TV broadcasters, like HBO, along with some satellite telephony services use this band of spectrum.
But now wireless operators building new broadband networks using WiMax would like to use some of the C-band spectrum in the 3.4 GHz to 4.2 GHz range to provide more bandwidth for their terrestrial wireless services.
The problem is that if the WiMax operators use this sliver of spectrum in the same geographic area where a satellite operator is transmitting in the C-band, the signals will interfere with each other. And if WiMax operators get ahold of this spectrum in some parts of the world, it could limit current and future services offered by satellite operators.
The International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, is expected to address the issue at its upcoming radio communications conference in Geneva in October. At the meeting, the ITU will discuss whether or not new terrestrial operators should get access to this piece of the C-band spectrum.
"It's a very big issue for the industry right now," Elbert said. "And it's hard to know how it will play out. The ITU gives each country one vote. And there are some companies with commercial interest that have been going to some smaller countries to get them to advocate for allowing new terrestrial players to use the spectrum. But the satellite industry is also rallying around this issue."
Day 1: Private industry moves to take over space race
The space race taking shape in the private sector today is due in large part to boyhood dreams of becoming astronauts.
Day 1: Space entrepreneur shoots for the moon
Space Adventures CEO Peter Diamandis talks about the future of private space travel to the moon and beyond.
Day 1: Key milestones in space exploration
A timeline of some of the events that brought humans into space and will guide where we go next.
Day 2: Silicon galaxy
Technologies developed by NASA have led to some of the most important commercial innovations to come out of Silicon Valley.
Day 2: The satellite age
The commercial satellite market has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, but future growth could suffer.
Day 3: Do we need NASA?
Is NASA still worth spending more than $16 billion in taxpayer money each year?
Day 3: Designing a 21st-century space suit
MIT professor Dava Newman tells how the form-fitting BioSuit will help give NASA a ready-to-wear outfit for the moon and Mars.
Memories from the space age
CNET News.com readers (and writers) share their memories from the early days of space exploration. October 5, 2007
Japan probe approaches moon
A new space race is getting under way, with as many as five nations expecting to land hardware on the moon within five years. October 4, 2007
Who's who in space travel
The private sector is laying the groundwork for a new era of space exploration. October 3, 2007
A half-century of space flight
We take a look at how the ships that enable space exploration are evolving. October 1, 2007
Strange visitors to other planets
The first Voyager spacecraft left Earth 30 years ago. Now, nearly 10 billion miles from home, they aren't finished yet.August 28, 2007
Building a better space suit
At MIT and the University of North Dakota, researchers are trying out new designs to clothe astronauts heading to Mars. July 18, 2007
Stellar views from the Hubble at 17
NASA and ESA celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope's anniversary with colliding stars and supernovas.April 25, 2007
The race to space: Recalling Sputnik
The Baltimore Sun
Science Times special coverage
New York Times
The next 50 years in space
Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)
Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom
Christian Science Monitor
Editors: Jennifer Guevin, Jim Kerstetter
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Madeleine Kempton
1 commentJoin the conversation! Add your comment