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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
Satellite pioneers remembered
Goonhilly in Cornwall
Goonhilly is largest operational satellite station on Earth
BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield

Communications have come a long way since 1962 when the first live television satellite signal winged its way across the Atlantic to BT's Goonhilly Earth Station, in Cornwall, UK.

Forty years on, the three Earth Stations involved in that pioneering test, at Andover in the USA, Pleumeur Bodou in France and Goonhilly, linked up live once again.

Live TV footage of the World Cup and other events is now taken for granted. But a revolutionary step forward was taken on a hot summer night on 11 July 1962, as the face of AT&T's then-chairman Fred Kappel was broadcast across the Atlantic.

At Goonhilly on the Lizard Peninsula, a satellite dish, affectionately nicknamed Arthur after the knight of the Round Table, received the historic image.

British-designed Arthur weighed in at a bulky 1,118 tonnes and was 26 metres (85 feet) in diameter.

Now, round satellite dishes are used all around the world.

Walking a tightrope

Dr John Bray was closely involved in the design of Arthur, officially known as Goonhilly Antenna One.

Aged 90, he was back in the Cornish Earth Station 40 years later to celebrate the tremendous achievements he and his colleagues brought to the world of communication.

Early satellite dish Arthur
Arthur remains fully operational
He recollected the day the transmission went live as "like walking a tightrope" as no one was sure whether the test would work.

In fact the reception on the first attempt was very fuzzy, leading some to speculate the dish was too heavy to accurately track the satellite.

The problem actually turned out to be more mundane. One component was fitted the wrong way round and the problem was solved within 20 minutes.

Despite the teething problems, it was a joy to be involved in such a project, recalled Dr Bray.

"They were tremendously exciting times. There was a real spirit of camaraderie among those involved. We really did feel like pioneers," he said.

Fiction becomes science

The tests were made possible by the launch of Telstar One, the world's first commercial communication satellite, from Cape Canaveral the previous day.

Goonhilly control staff
Goonhilly pioneered satellite communications
Its historic launch brought to reality the vision of science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke back in 1945 and proved such communication had a commercial future.

The same day as the live link up, the world's first long-distance telephone call via satellite took place between US Vice President Lyndon B Johnson and AT&T's then chairman Fred Kappel.

Telstar was a low-orbit satellite, between 950 and 5,630 kilometres (590 and 3,500 miles) above the Earth and only usable for three or four 40-minute periods in each 24 hours.

During its seven months in orbit, Telstar delivered live pictures of baseball games, plays, news broadcasts and a US Presidential news conference.

Telstar could transmit one television channel or 500 simultaneous telephone calls. Today's satellites can handle more than 500 television channels and thousands of data circuits.

Its cost was $6m compared with the modern satellites, which cost in excess of $200m.

International hub

Goonhilly has grown to be the largest operational satellite station on Earth, with more than 60 antennae dealing with a wide range of transmissions.

These include international phone calls, the transfer of financial data, television, ship and aircraft communications and internet traffic.

Many of the transmissions during the Afghanistan conflict came via Goonhilly and it was also involved in the 11 September disaster, providing alternative routes for data when US communications were damaged.

Goonhilly was chosen to house the satellite dish because the Lizard Peninsula offered an unimpaired view of the Atlantic horizon, giving the longest possible contact with low-orbiting satellites.

The geology of the area also offers vital support for the massive weight of the antennas.

The base is now a popular tourist attraction with 90,000 visitors touring the centre every year.

Arthur remains fully operational and currently carries satellite communications to India and the Far East.

Showing its true historic pedigree, the famous dish has just been recommended to English Heritage for Grade II listed building status.

See also:

06 Mar 02 | Entertainment
15 Aug 00 | N Ireland
12 Jul 99 | Science/Nature
11 Jul 02 | England
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