CASTOR has detected many satellites that can be considered the milestones of our modern communications age. Telstar 1, Telstar 2, Alouette, Anik A1 and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory are but a few of the honourable satellites launched in the past 50 years that CASTOR has had the privilege of detecting over the past four years during its massive optical satellite survey.

However, there is one milestone satellite (other than the tiny Vanguard 1) that is still elusive to detection by CASTOR. The first geosynchronous satellite used for commercial purposes was the American IntelSat 1-F1, otherwise known as "Early Bird". It was launched on April 6, 1965. This satellite became history by being the first geosynchronous satellite to be used for telephone and television communication between North America and Europe. Telstar 1 held the distinction of being the first satellite to deliver transatlantic communication. However, Telstar 1 was not placed in a geosynchronous orbit, which made it impractical to track and impossible to deliver 24 hour service.

"Early Bird" was active for approximately four years. During its life, "Early Bird" and its close cousins (IntelSat 2-F1 and ATS-1) delivered the first worldwide television program (Our World) and assisted the Apollo 11 astronauts. CASTOR has had the honour of detecting IntelSat 2-F1, also known as "Blue Bird", however, ATS-1 also remains elusive.

The IntelSat 1-F1 satellite (Early Bird).

Despite numerous attempts at detecting the satellite in the best of sky conditions and the best sun angles possible, CASTOR still cannot conclusively detect the "Early Bird" satellite, even when disengaging its 11-inch telescope's sidereal motor drive so that the satellite is allowed to remain on the CCD pixels for a longer period of time.

What is the problem you might ask? There are several reasons that conspire to keep Early Bird invisible to CASTOR:

1)     "Early Bird" is small. It is mainly a cylinder measuring 59 centimetres in height and 71 centimetres in diameter. When placed in a geostationary orbit, it would appear as a speck just 4 milli-arcseconds in size as seen from the surface of the Earth. Compare this with the much more modern Anik F3 communications satellite which would appear to be 0.2 arc-seconds in size from the same distance. "Early Bird's" cousin, IntelSat 2-F1 (Blue Bird) is larger, being 67 centimetres in height and 1.42 metres in diameter. CASTOR barely detected "Blue Bird", as it just peeks above the background noise in its CCD images.

2)     "Early Bird" is dark. Seeing a picture of the actual satellite will give you a clue of how dark it is. The picture also shows that the satellite is very dull in appearance (not shiny) so it does not appear to be very reflective. This might be the main reason why "Early Bird" cannot be detected with medium-aperture telescopes fitted with CCD detectors.

3)     "Early Bird" is cylindrical. If the satellite was cubical in shape, the sunlight bouncing off one of its sides would all be focused on one area. Instead, the cylindrical shape scatters the light to many different diverging directions, thus making this satellite even more difficult to detect from the ground.

4)     "Early Bird" is distant. At closest, "Early Bird" is about 37,000 kilometres away from the Earth's surface. This is a significant disadvantage if attempting to detect such an object.

5)     CASTOR's telescope aperture is too small. Of course, there must be a limit to what size satellite CASTOR can detect. It appears that "Early Bird" symbolizes a satellite that is under the detection threshold of the current CASTOR equipment. A larger aperture than 11-inches is definitely required to detect this satellite. Is it 14-inches? Is it 16-inches? Is it 20-inches? Is it larger than that? If anyone definitively gets an image of "Early Bird", please send it to CASTOR, along with a list of the equipment you used. Although I cannot officially add the satellite to the catalogue, you will get an honourable mention.

A single image of the IntelSat 2-F1 (Blue Bird) satellite was obtained at 05:09 UTC on October 5, 2007. The satellite streak can be barely seen above the background noise in-between the labelled NORAD catalogue number (02514) and the arrow denoting the satellite's apparent direction of travel. This is a negative of the original image used to increase the contrast of the satellite streak.

The satellite's most shining moment came on June 25, 1967. On that day, "Early Bird", along with "Blue Bird" and ATS-1, were used to broadcast the first worldwide television special, mainly used to highlight specific cultures and accomplishments around the world.

The main event involved a certain famous British pop band of the day. The Beatles sang their new song "All you Need is Love" live to 400 million television viewers around the world.

"Early Bird" et. al. also broadcast Marshall McLuhan's prophetic thoughts on the new communications age, a meeting between then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and then Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin (neither were actually shown since the rules stated that no politician be shown during the broadcast). The "Glassboro New Jersey" segment might be the first worldwide television news report involving politics. Today, we take these live reports as commonplace such that we take them for granted. The new Tokyo subway system, then under construction, was shown as jackhammer operators worked into the night. Finally, Australia was broadcasted to the world as a new day dawned in Melbourne.


If CASTOR does one day detect this monumental and historic satellite, it might just be another first for Early Bird. It might signal the first time a Canadian private satellite tracking business has detected the object. CASTOR will certainly keep trying to detect this elusive object, even though the odds are against it.





Why CASTOR Can't Detect Early Bird Was Last Modified On February 17, 2011