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Future Space Traffic
November 1960 Radio-Electronics Article

December 1958 Radio-Electronics

December 1958 Radio-Electronics Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Electronics, published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), 11,444 objects have been launched into space from Sputnik up until the date of this writing (June 11, 2021). That includes satellites, space exploration probes, sounding rockets, manned missions, etc. With the advent of OneWeb, StarLink, and other kilosatellite constellations being launched, the number will increase by thousands more in the next few years. Most are in low earth orbit (LEO) with limited lifetimes before particle drag eventually degrades their orbit to where they burn up in the atmosphere. Those in high orbits - up to geostationary altitudes† - will physically last well beyond their operational lifetimes. When Hugo Gernsback wrote this article for Radio-Electronics magazine at the end of 1958, he says there were 34 satellites in orbit. Further, "By the end of this century there will certainly be more than 10,000 earth, lunar and other planetary satellites of every description of dozens of nations." As with so many things, Mr. Gernsback's predictions were very accurate.

†At the geostationary altitude of 22,236 miles, an orbiting entity is traveling at about 8,677.7 mph, which is about a third of Earth's escape velocity of 25,020 mph.

Future Space Traffic

Future Space Traffic, November 1960 Radio-Electronics - RF CafeHugo Gernsback. Editor

... Tens of Thousands of Spacecraft will Soon be Aloft ...

As this is written (at the end of August), 34 space vehicles are in orbit. The United States accounts for 26, the Soviet Union 8. Still transmitting data to earth are 10 - US 9, Soviet Union 1. The rest - i.e., 24 space vehicles - either through mechanical malfunction or for electronic reasons, are still gravitating in space, voiceless and signal-less, silent.

This is the short and epic 3-year record of man's first excursion into space, above the earth's atmosphere, since the advent of Sputnik 1 - the true start of the Space Age, on Oct. 4, 1957. What of the future, immediate and distant?

Columbus and the intelligentsia of 1492 certainly never dreamt what the opening of the New World could mean to mankind - riches beyond imagination, steamships that transport 3,000 people across the Atlantic in a little over 4 days (it took Columbus 70), speaking under and above the ocean, flying over it in 6 hours and less, seeing across the ocean by television (Baird on Feb. 8, 1928). Certainly no one alive in 1492 would have had the temerity to predict such "arrant nonsense"!

Likewise, we of 1960 are often prone to look at the conquest of space now in the making as an enigma, wrapped in doubt and disbelief, that appears of little consequence to humanity at large.

Let us then push aside the thick veils of the future and examine some of the possible scientific predictions of the Space Age. Remember always that space is a new and completely alien and harsh world, never visited by living man before.

Extreme heat and cold, dozens of harmful radiations - many deadly, weightlessness, a variety of gravitational effects, meteorites and other matter flying at the rate of over 10 miles a second, a total vacuum - these are only a few conditions in this new world never experienced by man.

Let us stay for a few moments with only one branch of space vehicles, the satellite type that circles the earth in orbit from 250 to thousands of miles above. We mentioned that at this moment there are 34. In time there will be many thousands of every imaginable type. By the end of this century there will certainly be more than 10,000 earth, lunar and other planetary satellites of every description of dozens of nations. Many will be for research, many for communication purposes. They will be of all sizes, from a few feet to thousands of feet in diameter. Most will be automatic, highly sophisticated unmanned ones; others will be manned.

Hovering observatories will be "stationed" 22,238 miles above the equator. Seen from the earth, they will appear stationary as they travel at about 6,882 miles per hour, which compares to the surface speed of 1,000 miles an hour at which the earth revolves.* Equipped with light amplifiers, three such observatories, spaced equidistant over the equator, can directly view and photograph any part of any country (except the polar regions) and spot any activity such as troop movements, intercontinental missiles when launched, weather conditions such as cloud formation and cyclones, ice patrolling and hundreds of other activities.

All space observatories will also be equipped with the most modern and sensitive infrared receiving equipment. Even with present-day equipment, it would be possible to detect a multitude of heat effects at a distance of 22,238 miles overhead, even through overcasts. In the future the stationary space observatories will do vastly more refined observing and detecting of many activities on the earth - particularly for military purposes.

Also connected by cable to every floating observatory will be a huge aluminized plastic ball or sphere from 750 to 1,000 feet in diameter. The three observatories, stationed equidistant around the earth 22,238 miles over the equator, will reflect from their spheres all electronic long-distance, national and international communication traffic, be it radio, TV, telegraph or telephone, or other signaling. Signals can be directly bounced from earth against the reflecting balls, then returned to earth. Others, to reach the antipodes, will be relayed between the observatories, then transmitted to their destination.

By the time the observatories are in space by the end of this century, it is almost certain that all spacecraft will be propelled by atomic power. This will be true of satellites as well as interplanetary spaceships.

Won't there be many collisions in space between these tens of thousands of spaceships, satellites, observatories and dozens of other types of spacecraft? Not at all - certainly many fewer than between the thousands of propeller and jet airplanes now crowding the air lanes. All present air traffic moves in a thin space less than 50,000 feet thick. Future space traffic will be dispersed into millions of miles. There could be tens of millions of spacecraft maneuvering in space without fear of collision. The only possible danger will come when thousands of space vehicles descend en masse toward the earth to land.

Inasmuch as all landing craft must have permission to alight, exactly as aircraft today, collisions will be a rarity. This will even be more true than now, because future spacecraft will not require long landing strips. All space vehicles of the future will descend vertically into rather small numbered spaces, many flights terminating on top of city skyscrapers, just as helicopters do now.

Will not our communications spectrum be severely overloaded with all this tremendous traffic between earth and tens of thousands of satellites, observatories, spaceships to and from the planets?

Fortunately not. There is sufficient room in the radio-frequency spectrum to accommodate 300,000 simultaneous separate communications at a minimum.

Incidentally, once thousands of interlunar and interplanetary spaceships are in transit, they probably will not communicate directly with the earth at all. There will be an interplanetary communication center on the airless moon, its sole purpose being to clear all distant message traffic, which then will be relayed to earth on special frequencies. Even communications between the various spaceships will be via the moon center, unless the spacecraft are near each other, which probably won't be too often. - H.G.

* At an altitude of 22,238 miles, the observatories must travel nearly 7 times as fast (6,877.7 mph) as the earth's speed at the equator.



Posted June 11, 2021

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