Airbus satellite innovations bring communication to the world
50 years ago today, on 16 July 1969 at 13:32 UTC, NASA launched their historic Apollo 11 mission on its journey to the Moon in a fantastic, pioneering feat of human progress.
As the astronauts headed towards the Moon, back on Earth millions of people were gathering around their television sets. An estimated 530 million people watched Armstrong's televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “...one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” four days later on July 20, 1969. These images were relayed around the world with the help of Intelsat 2 satellites and Earth stations such as Goonhilly, early pioneers in satellite television.
At the same time as this early victory for satellite communications was taking place, engineers at what is today the Airbus site in Stevenage were working on the next generation of Intelsat 3 satellites, a considerably larger model with a much greater information handling capacity.
Although tiny by today’s standards, the new Intelsat 3 satellites had ten times the capacity of transatlantic cables, with the ability to carry 1,200 telephone calls or four TV channels simultaneously, reducing the cost of communication as broadcasting opened up to the masses.
Speed forward 30 years to 1999, and Airbus engineers were starting work on the next wave of technology to keep us connected: the massive Inmarsat 4 satellites.
These large satellites were another first in European telecommunication: a huge antenna and on-board digital processors allowed one satellite to process more channels than all previous Inmarsat satellites combined.
Often used by news reporters to send their video reports back from remote corners of the world, these satellites, just like the early models which aired the Moon landing in 1969, helped to relay important news reports around the globe.
16 July 2019: As viewing habits change, broadcast television is being replaced by on-demand services; news and entertainment alike are increasingly delivered directly to handsets via the Internet.
Today’s powerful satellites can simultaneously broadcast huge numbers of channels in high definition: DIRECTV15 is the biggest satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space so far, a giant which serves direct television for all of North America.
But, as viewing habits change and Internet access becomes more important, Airbus teams, in a joint venture with OneWeb, are working on the latest innovation: mass produced, modular satellites that make connectivity possible for everyone.
The first six OneWeb Satellites have been launched as part of a constellation that will comprise more than 600 satellites in the first wave alone, providing affordable high-speed Internet to individuals everywhere.
“We’re building not just a fleet but a digital bridge to enable affordable broadband access for the billions of unconnected people around the world,” says Greg Wyler, Founder and Chairman of OneWeb.
The challenge is enormous, involving a shift from the low production rates of large complex GEO satellites to mass production of low cost units. But Airbus teams have been working on innovative designs and processes that are dramatically lowering the cost and speed of satellite production – from two years to less than a day.
In the four days it took NASA’s Apollo 11 astronauts to reach the Moon, Airbus will be able to build several of the satellites that will connect people like never before.
Like this story?
For 50 days, we are celebrating the pioneering spirit that drives our progress. Explore more stories here.