This summer billions around the globe are expected to watch the London 2012 Olympics on TV – an experience enabled by a global constellation of telecommunication satellites that we now take for granted. In a guest post, Pat Norris FRAeS explains how space technology in orbit has changed the way this global sporting event is viewed.
The 2012 Olympics will be enjoyed by billions of people across the globe as it happens. Fans in China, Australia, Brazil and Greece will cheer and groan as they watch their heroes in action with almost the same sense of immediacy as the crowds in the London venues. This year, some events will be broadcast in 3-D for the first time using the latest TV technology, high definition TV will provide superb detail, and multiple channels will allow the viewer to switch between events at the touch of a button on the TV remote control.How different it was 50 years ago. I have no memory of the Helsinki Games, but I suspect they were much the same as the Melbourne Games four years later in 1956. I recall huddling with my parents around a radio in Dublin listening to a crackly radio commentary of the 1,500 metre final – won by Irish star Ronnie Delany, which of course is why I remember it. A week or two later, a film version of the race was shown on TV and in cinemas on Pathé News or some other newsreel programme, having been brought from Australia in the form of a reel of film by piston-engined aeroplane.
My 1956 experience was the closest an audience could come to the excitement of the Olympics without being in the stadium until 1964 – the Tokyo Games. The space age had arrived in 1957 with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, and then in 1961 the first human, Yuri Gagarin. Space technology evolved so that communications satellites were just on the scene in time for the 1964 Games giving TV viewers in the US (and to a more limited extent in Europe) the opportunity to view many of the events as they happened, including a few in colour.
World-wide TV coverage came in with a bang in 1968 at the Mexico Games. The Black Power salutes by 200m Gold Medal winner Tommy Smith and Bronze medallist John Carlos had an impact that could not otherwise have been achieved, being seen immediately by millions of people around the world. Four years later at the Munich Games, the kidnapping and eventual shoot-out that killed 11 members of the Israeli team, five Black September terrorists and a German security official, electrified the world – all the more powerfully because of the immediacy of satellite TV.
We now take for granted that we can witness any sporting event as it happens wherever in the world it takes place. The signals have to travel (1) from the camera to the local studio, (2) from there to the studio of the TV companies in other countries and (3) from there to the individual viewer’s set. Satellites made the second leg of this journey possible in 1964 and they remain a major part of the delivery scheme in the 21st century – at least for the highest quality imagery (see Table below).
The Syncom-3 satellite that beamed TV pictures across the Pacific Ocean in 1964 could cope with just one TV channel. It provided a continuous service by virtue of its orbit 36,000 km above the Equator (the so-called geostationary orbit), weighted just 68kg when launched and generated a mere 29W from its solar cells. The Relay-1 satellite that forwarded the TV pictures from the US to Europe was in an elliptical orbit whose highest point was just 7,500km above the Earth giving it infrequent and intermittent visibility of both sides of the Atlantic as needed for the Olympic TV service.
250 telecomms satellites in orbit
The 250 or so communications satellites in geostationary orbit today benefit from the nearly 50 years of advances in electronics since Syncom-1 – illustrated by Moore’s Law for computer devices which states that performance doubles every 18 months, providing an improvement in performance of about ten billion since 1962. It’s no surprise then that the satellites carrying the 2012 Olympic Games can cope with several hundred TV channels each, a significant proportion of them in High Definition (HD) that uses 5 to 10 times the radio spectrum of Standard Definition (SD) channels, and a handful in the even more spectrum hungry 3-D. The transmission power of each channel has also increased meaning that the signals can be received by a 70cm dish whereas Syncom-1 required a 35m monster antenna (such as those at Goonhilly). Today’s state of the art satellites weigh 5-6 tonnes and generate up to 20kW of electrical power from their banks of solar cells – for example the 50th satellite operated by Luxembourg-based SES launched on 15th February 2012.
TV coverage can of course be directed to your smart phone using the internet. If you are outside mobile telephone coverage the latest satellites can do the same: streaming the London 2012 coverage to a hand-held device. The satellites that perform this miracle do so by using enormous antennas in space that are deployed once they reach orbit -those operated by London-based Inmarsat for example are 10m in diameter.
So, satellites began the process that turned the Olympic Games into the global festival they are today with TV viewing figures in the billions – the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony alone drew 1 billion viewers world-wide. However the story has a twist. As with all major sporting events, TV coverage brings commercial pressures with it. Huge sums of money are bid to obtain the TV franchise for the Games – for example, NBC paid $2billion for the US rights to the 2011 Vancouver Winter Games plus the 2012 London Summer Games. The enormous public interest raises the price of sponsorship, which for London is said to be more than $100million for a Tier 1 local sponsor, with the total of all local sponsors exceeding $1.1billion – and add to that another $1billion or so in fees paid by the International Olympic Committee’s eleven global top Olympic partners such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s.
These commercial factors have changed the Games from an event for elite athletes into a spectacle for the masses. The athletes in Melbourne in 1956 participated in a much less commercially driven affair than we will see in August 2012 and it was played out in front of a much smaller audience. Satellites have brought this elite spectacle into our living rooms but one of the unintended consequences is that they have thereby changed the event itself.
Pat Norris FRAeS is Space Strategy Manager at Logica and Chairman of the RAeS Learned Publications & Communications Group. He is the author
of Spies in the Sky (2007) and Watching Earth from Space (2010) – see www.pat-norris.com.