50th anniversary of Norwegian satcom
Norway’s era of satellite communications began on May 17, 1968, with a ping from ESRO
M. Michael Brady
A maxim in economic history holds that “Never in history has man successfully invented a device, an instrument, a machine, or a structure without creating a demand for performance far beyond the capacity of the original design.” This is particularly true of Norwegian satellite communications, the story of which began on the 17th of May 1968, with the first reception of a signal sent by the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) 2B astrophysical research satellite at the Tromsø Telemetry Station (TTS).
At the time, satellite communications was a scientifically well-founded yet less-proven concept. It had first been proposed in 1929 in a small monograph in German by Hermann Nordung, a pseudonym of Captain Potocnik of the old Austrian Imperial Army. In 1945, sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke made it more widely known in English in an article in the October issue of Wireless World. In 1962, the Telstar satellite relayed the first public television signals across the Atlantic from Europe to North America, and in 1963, Intelsat I, the first commercial communications satellite, was launched into geosynchronous orbit*.
ESRO was founded in 1964 to pursue scientific research in space. In turn, in 1965 in Norway, TTS was proposed as an earth station dedicated to receiving signals from satellites and sounding rockets** and specifically built to be ready in time for the launch of the ESRO 2B satellite. In January 1968, TTS was operational and ready for the ESRO 2B polar orbit satellite launch. Four months later, the first signal from it was received at TTS.
The rest is history. Growth came apace. TTS became Tromsø Satellite Station (TSS) in 1987 and is now owned by KSAT, a joint venture of the Kongsberg Group and Space Norway (SPN), a company owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Fishery, and Industry. TSS was merged into KSAT, and the company now owns and operates 20 satellite ground stations around the world. Together the stations use more than 140 antennas to receive data from and send command signals to satellites in polar orbit.
The phenomenal growth of KSAT is an epitome of the era in which it took place, reflecting the aspects of both coincidence and causation that trigger technological progress. The aspect of coincidence is like that of having “the three things that matter most in property: Location, Location, Location.” The former TSS is at Tromsø, 375 km north of the Arctic Circle, an ideal location to communicate with satellites in polar orbits, which is why ESRO proposed it be built. The aspect of causation arose at the Norwegian Defense Research Institute (NDRE), founded in 1946 and long Norway’s high-tech research institute of choice. One leading career researcher there was Karl Holberg (1921-1999), who understood early the potential of digital computers and as the director of the Electronics Division oversaw the development of the SAM-2 computer and its interconnection to the PCM demodulator*** that enabled reception and decoding of the first ESRO-2B satellite signal. He was also involved in cybernetics, a pursuit that led in 1973 to his becoming involved in Norway being the first country outside the USA to be included in the ARPANET, one of the two precursor technologies of the Internet; but that’s another story.
• The economic history quote is from “Relative Prices in the Nineteenth Century,” by D.S. Brady, in the Journal of Economic History, Volume XXIV, June 1964, No. 2.
• Das Problem Der Befahrung Des Weltraums (The Problems of Space Travel) by H. Nordung, Berlin, 1929, the book with the first known drawings of satellite communications.
• “Extra-terrestrial relays,” by Arthur C. Clarke, in Wireless, October 1945.
• The “Location, Location, Location” quote is often attributed to British real estate tycoon Lord Harold Samuel (1912-1987), but as pointed out by language oracle William Safire in the June 26, 2009, edition of the New York Times Magazine, appeared first in 1926 in a real estate classified advertisement in the Chicago Tribune.
• The Norwegian Space center, periodically updated overview brochure in Norwegian and English: www.romsenter.no/eng.
• A comprehensive overview of the space sector in Norway is provided by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry white paper “Between heaven and earth: Norwegian space policy for business and public benefit,” Meld. St. 32 (2012-2013) Report to the Storting, December 2013, downloadable from the Norwegian government website: www. regjeringen.no.
* A geosynchronous orbit is one of a satellite around the Earth that matches the period of the Earth’s rotation so it appears to be at a fixed position in the sky.
** A sounding rocket is one designed to take measurements of the atmosphere at altitudes higher than by weather balloons but lower than satellites.
*** PCM is an abbreviation for Pulse Code Modulation; a PCM demodulator is the part of a satellite data radio receiver that extracts information from received sequences of pulses.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist. He worked in telecommunications R&D before turning to editing, writing, and translating.
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.