Intasat, the first Spanish satellite

Intasat, the first Spanish artificial satellite launched in a Sun-synchronous orbit culminating at about one thousand and five hundred kilometres to study the ionosphere, was a milestone. It was a great challenge, which put Spain at the same technological level than any other European country. It was, as one of the people involved said, “making a satellite that would teach us how to make satellites”. Intasat was launched piggyback with NOAA-4, also known as ITOS-G, a weather satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Spain’s first contact with the space sector was through NASA. Its relations with the USA in this field have been developed mainly through the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial. This institute’s contacts with NACA to exchange information on aeronautical matters go back to 1951, when they were initiated through Theodore von Kármán, a good friend of Spain and a regular visitor to the country. In 1958, when NACA became NASA, the relationship between INTA and the new organisation continued without a break.

The Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial

The Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA) or National Institute of Aerospace Technology, is Spain’s space agency. It was founded in 1942, as the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeronáutica (National Institute of Aeronautics), and has its headquarters in Torrejón de Ardoz, near Madrid.

A study of the origin of Spanish space activities shows that Spain joined the European space effort right at the beginning and that this imposed demands that were beyond the country’s financial and technical resources at the time, making for a difficult start and almost destroying the dream behind that initiative. An analysis of this early period suggests that the initiative was largely attributable to an external source and that Professor Theodore von Kármán’s high esteem for Spain and his frequent contacts with the Spanish aeronautical authorities and investigators during those years may have been instrumental.

On March 18, 1960, the Spanish and U.S. Governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to establish the first NASA satellite tracking station in Spain and work started immediately on building the station close to the Maspalomas lighthouse, at the southern end of the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. The choice of location was determined by the fact that Cape Canaveral and Maspalomas are at the same latitude, with an ocean between them, and by the objective of the station.

On January 29, 1964, another Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Spanish and American Governments for “the construction and functioning of a tracking and data acquisition station of space vehicles”. The Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA) was designated as the Spanish representative and the organisation in charge of its development. That is how the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex (MDSCC), a ground station located in Robledo de Chavela, Spain, was officially founded.

The development of space activity in Spain was marked by substantial and sustained efforts by those involved during the early years and also by those sections of industry and institutions that decided of their own free will to participate and invest. Since then, support has been maintained at a level unprecedented in Spain for an R&D activity. This has been due very largely to ESA, which is thus the third external player to be acknowledged, and it should also be remembered that ESRO was highly supportive in 1967, when there was considerable pressure in Spain to leave that organisation.

This sustained effort has had remarkable results: the industrial training of several thousand professionals to the most advanced technical level; a parallel improvement in the technological resources available to industry and in the experimental capabilities of institutions; the creation of products and services that contribute to the nation’s wealth in areas unheard of only ten years ago; and pioneering integration in Europe of an important section of Spain’s administration, industry and universities. In the scientific field, many groups are already familiar with subjects that were not within the reach of the scientific community a few years ago and some are today leading European experiments. Also, as another consequence of this activity, Spain is a member of many new and important organisations, both European and international.

Intasat, the first Spanish satellite

Launched into a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on November 15, 1974 atop a NASA Delta rocket (Delta is an American versatile family of expendable launch systems that has provided space launch capability in the United States of America since 1960; there have been more than three hundred Delta rockets launched, with a ninety-five per cent success rate) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Spain’s first satellite, which had a lifespan of two years, had a mass of twenty kilograms. The spacecraft was a 12-sided right prism, forty-four centimetres across opposite corners, and forty-one centimetres high.

This beacon experiment consisted of a two-frequency transmitter that continuously radiated linearly polarized, stable and unmodulated signals. The two-beacon monopole antenna, one beacon for each frequency, extended from the top and bottom of the spacecraft along the spacecraft axis. The experimenters calculated total electron content along the propagation path from satellite to ground and observed ionospheric irregularities and scintillations. Electrical supply was provided by solar cells and stabilisation by a magnetic system. All typical satellite subsystems were developed within the project, even some subsystems that did not fly but were kept on for learning purposes, with a view to future projects.

Of course, carrying out this project was not easy; it took six years to launch it, from the initial studies which started at the end of 1968 to November 1974. Every aspect of the project was done from the very beginning: the form and size it would have, the subsystems it would contain… In August 1971, the project was approved by the Spanish Council of Ministers and the following month, the contracts signed with the different companies that were going to collaborate in the satellite manufacture were published.

This first Spanish satellite was launched as secondary payload on November 15, 1974 and worked perfectly until October 6, 1976, when transmissions were automatically terminated as planned. The satellite signals were received in Spain at three stations. More than forty stations in other countries received the signals. This work led to a great knowledge, and as a result, those who participated in the project became of great interest to the most important Spanish companies.

Since Spain put its first satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 1974, the Spanish space industry has grown and grown. Investment in research, development and innovation has been essential for this development. Spain now has an important space industry that participates in the major international missions, such as the one which carried the first Spanish spationaut, Pedro Duque, to the International Space Station (ISS).