Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

Satellites are What Makes Today’s Super-Connected World Possible

The first time I took the nearly four-hour drive from my hometown to my grandmother’s house, I was sure to take one thing along: My mom. She was my navigator; telling me which turns to make, where to stop the way, and how to maneuver the construction that had been going on for at least five years. Basically, she was my Siri. I know enough to stop just short of revealing my age, but suffice it to say, it was years later before I got my first cell phone. That means I had nothing electronic to plug grandma’s address into. It also means that if Mom fell asleep, well, we could quite easily leave Mississippi and be headed into Tennessee.

These days, Mom would be out of a job. My handy cell phone GPS can take me across the country and show me where to stop for gas. My maps app can show me which restaurants I will pass before reaching my destination and allow me to book a nearby hotel room at the last moment.

Most Americans carry a tiny supercomputer with them everywhere they go these days. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, about 77 percent of Americans own smartphones, up from 35 percent in 2011. Experts estimate that 6 billion people worldwide will use smartphones by 2020. We count on those tiny computers to keep track of our teen drivers and even turn on our air conditioners as we near our homes. Still, many of us don’t actually understand the technology behind how GPS allows our phones to access such data.

The idea of using satellites to communicate has been around for decades. In 1945, Sir Arthur C. Clarke set out the first principles of communication satellites in a paper titled, “Extra-terrestrial relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?” The essay explored how radio waves could be used to provide worldwide communication using rockets.

That idea was made somewhat of a reality in 1957 when the Russians launched the Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. The launch was deemed a success, but the Sputnik could only transmit a series of beeps back to earth. That’s a far cry from watching astronauts sip tang and eat potato chips in space. Needless to say, there was much room for growth as humans continued to explore how satellites could be developed.

The Boeing Company

Spuntnik I was a polished metal sphere 58 cm diameter, with four external radio antennas to broadcast radio pulses. It was visible all around the Earth and its radio pulses were detectable.

Syncom was one of those developments. The Syncom satellite, which was launched in 1963, revolutionized long-range communications. Before that, long-distance phone calls were expensive and complicated and it was nearly impossible to broadcast global events. In August that same year, President John F. Kennedy called the Nigerian prime minister. It was the first live two-way call between two heads of government. Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the U.S. president couldn’t easily reach any other head of government from any phone.

The Boeing Company

Syncom III was the first ever geostationary satellite. Today, there over 400 active satellites in geostationary orbit.

Not only did satellites change how we could communicate, it also changed how we viewed world events. In the 1990s, satellites allowed the world to watch as the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait as news stations were able to broadcast globally. GPS satellites also allowed the U.S. military to use precision-guided weapons.

By 1993, the scientist behind Project Syncom had developed more than 150 satellites. Today, more than 1,000 satellites orbit the earth.

Many of us probably don’t understand the nuances of just how satellites make our day-to-day lives run more smoothly. But many of us can agree that being able to hail a ride or order a meal simply by using our smartphones’ GPS systems is not just a necessity, it’s a modern marvel. As much as I love my mom, I, for one, am glad that my cell phone is my new navigator. Sure, she never offers me gas money, but she’s much better at finding the fastest and most efficient route -- and I never have to buy her lunch.

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