Pleumeur-Bodou and the French CNET

For this new article on Space Legal Issues, let’s focus on Pleumeur-Bodou and the French CNET. July 11, 1962. For the first time in the history of telecommunications, television images are broadcasted live from the United States of America to Europe, thanks to the Telstar satellite. Mondovision was born.

This is the result of years of American research, and a European willingness to enter the technological race of satellite communications. This feat for the time would not have been possible without the mobilisation of a Breton village located in the Trégor region in the Côtes-d’Armor, Pleumeur-Bodou.

Chosen as the location of the giant antenna that would receive the waves of the Telstar satellite, the Pleumeur-Bodou site became the exact replica of Andover Earth Station in the United States of America, with its giant balloon. It is integrated into the French CNET or National Center for Telecommunication Studies.

The Andover Earth Station

Andover Earth Station was one of the first satellite Earth stations, located at Andover in the U.S. state of Maine. It was built by AT&T in 1961 to communicate with the Telstar 1 satellite, the first direct relay communications satellite. It provided the first experimental satellite telephone and television service between North America and Europe. It was also used with the Relay satellite. The station was dismantled in the 1990s.

The location was selected by AT&T in December 1960. The main factors were the topography (set in the Western Maine Mountains), and the radio interference signal level. Other factors included a location to give a short great circle path to Western Europe, it was located close enough to existing transcontinental radio relay television and telephone routes to facilitate interconnection. In addition, the site had to be large enough to accommodate an antenna structure and control building, and if necessary, provide room for expansion.

The Ground Station was operational in 1962. AT&T and Bell Labs initiated, funded, constructed and took the leadership to make this project possible. The radio transmitter aboard Telstar 1 was very low-powered compared to modern communication satellites.

Pleumeur-Bodou

Pleumeur-Bodou and the French CNET start with Pleumeur-Bodou Ground Station, an early ground station in north-west France, and one of the first in the world. It was the site of the first satellite transmission between the USA and Europe in the early morning of July 11, 1962 (French time), lasting nineteen minutes on the satellite’s seventh orbit. The tracking station was developed by France Télécom, now known as Orange S.A.; the site was built by the Centre National d’Études des Télécommunications, which became France Télécom R&D in 2000. There was also another nearby tracking station at Lannion.

The construction of the radome was decided in 1961, in parallel with the American project Telstar 1. The experiment called for the establishment of a relay station on both sides of the Atlantic. The French government decided to participate. It remained to find a site to accommodate the future French “space station”. Because of its geographical location, Brittany was chosen. The choice of Pleumeur-Bodou was evident: facing west, the natural basin that had been identified, was safe from electrical disturbances. In addition, the place was only ten kilometres from Lannion, and the new laboratories of CNET (National Center for Telecommunications Studies).

A radome (which is a portmanteau of radar and dome) is a structural, weatherproof enclosure that protects a radar antenna. The radome is constructed of material that minimally attenuates the electromagnetic signal transmitted or received by the antenna, effectively transparent to radio waves. Radomes protect the antenna from weather and conceal antenna electronic equipment from view. They also protect nearby personnel from being accidentally struck by quickly rotating antennas.

A few hours after the launch of Telstar 1, the Andover Earth station antenna was already broadcasting signals. A few days later, on July 12, 1962, television images crossed the Atlantic for the first time. In competition with a British Earth station, France is the first to receive the broadcasts transmitted by the satellite. That day, television images from the United States of America via the Telstar satellite appeared on the control screens of the French station Pleumeur-Bodou.

When the images appeared, I saw technicians burst into tears. It was so beautiful and moving”. “When one has lived this kind of event in one’s life, one never forgets”. These “beautiful” images are limited to the American flag, then to three men in suits, including the big boss of the Bell System, talking around a table. As for the transmission, it lasted only seven minutes, interrupting when the satellite disappeared out of reach of the Pleumeur-Bodou radome, a huge white unusual ball in the countryside. But the moment was intense; for the first time, images were transmitted live from the United States of America.

The Centre National d’Études des Télécommunications (CNET)

The Centre National d’Études des Télécommunications (CNET) was a French national research centre in telecommunications. It was created on May 4, 1944 as a French interministerial research centre, but it was placed under the general supervision of the French Minister of PTT (Posts and Telecommunications). In 1990, Directorate General of Telecommunications (DGT) (part of the French Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) became France Télécom, and CNET became the R&D centre of France Télécom. Pleumeur-Bodou and the French CNET worked together.

Telstar 1

Telstar 1, launched by NASA’s Thor-Delta rocket (the Thor-Delta, also known as Delta DM-19 or just Delta, was an early American expendable launch system used for twelve orbital launches in the early 1960s. A derivative of the Thor-Able, it was a member of the Thor family of rockets, and the first member of the Delta family) on July 10, 1962, was the first commercially funded satellite to be ever launched.

It was the satellite that allowed the first live broadcast of television images between the United States of America and Europe. Developed by AT&T Inc., an American multinational conglomerate holding company headquartered at Whitacre Tower in Downtown Dallas, Texas, the world’s largest telecommunications company, the second largest provider of mobile telephone services, and the largest provider of fixed telephone services in the United States of America through AT&T Communications, Telstar 1 was an experimental telecommunications satellite, the first launched in a commercial setting and financed largely privately.

Developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories for AT&T, Telstar 1 was the world’s first active communications satellite and the world’s first commercial payload in space. It demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting information via satellite, gained experience in satellite tracking and studied the effect of Van Allen radiation belts on satellite design. The satellite was spin-stabilized to maintain its desired orientation in space. Power to its onboard equipment was provided by a solar array, in conjunction with a battery back-up system. It was intended to test the use of a satellite for long distance communications: telephony and television.

Several large Earth stations were built on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including Pleumeur-Bodou in France (Pleumeur-Bodou Ground Station was an early ground station in north-west France, and one of the first in the world; a ground station, Earth station, or Earth terminal is a terrestrial radio station designed for extraplanetary telecommunication with spacecraft, constituting part of the ground segment of the spacecraft system, or reception of radio waves from astronomical radio sources), to carry out these tests.

The satellite, launched by a Delta rocket (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 percent success rate) from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, worked satisfactorily until February 21, 1963. That is what can be said about Pleumeur-Bodou and the French CNET.