Applications Satellites

From the beginning of the Space Age, people recognized that Earth-orbiting satellites—able to see and communicate across vast distances—promised unique benefits. In the tense years of the Cold War, such spacecraft (known as applications satellites) evolved down two separate paths: one devoted to national security needs, the other to civilian interests.

Today, hundreds of civilian and military applications satellites ring the Earth, often operating side-by-side in orbit. They provide similar services—communications, photography, remote sensing, weather analysis, and navigation—reaching different but occasionally overlapping communities of users. These satellites have become an integral part of contemporary life. We take for granted daily reports on weather as seen from space and television via satellite, and we have come to expect that satellites will be on alert to enhance national security.


Corona Film Return Capsule at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Corona Film Return Capsule
This is the second film return capsule recovered on May 25, 1972 from the last CORONA photoreconnaissance satellite mission. Developed by the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency, the CORONA satellites were designed primarily to furnish imagery of the Soviet Union that manned aircraft could not provide for various reasons. The film in the cameras was reeled onto the spools in these capsules, the capsules separated from the rest of the satellite and reentered the atmosphere, and after the heat shield was jettisoned a parachute deployed that enabled an Air Force plane to gather in the capsule. From August 1960 to May 1972, there were more than 120 successful CORONA missions that provided invaluable intelligence on the Soviet Union and other nations. General Electric made this capsule, and the National Reconnaissance Office transferred it to Museum in 1995.

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Tracking and Data Relay Satellite at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS)
During the first decades of the Space Age, NASA required a worldwide network of ground stations to communicate with satellites and human-operated spacecraft. The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system, a constellation of three spacecraft placed into geosynchronous orbit beginning in 1983, was designed to replace this expensive, far-flung system. Positioned equidistant in orbit, they provide nearly continuous contact with spacecraft in low Earth orbit — an especially crucial capability for ensuring the safety of space shuttle crews. A TDRS transmits both voice and data communications. Under optimum conditions, it can transfer in a second the equivalent of a 20-volume encyclopedia.

This artifact is a high-fidelity model built by Design Models, Inc., under the direction of TRW, which manufactured the first several TDRS spacecraft. TRW donated the model in 1986.

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Relay 1 Communications Satellite at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Relay 1 Communications Satellite
Launched by NASA in 1962, Relay 1 was one of several satellites placed in orbit in the decade after Sputnik to test the possibilities of communications from space. Relay 1 received telephone and television signals from ground stations and then transmitted them to other locations on the Earth's surface. The satellite relayed signals between North America and Europe and between North and South America, and it also monitored the effects of radiation on its electronics. In conjunction with the Syncom 3 communications satellite, Relay 1 transmitted television coverage of the 1964 Olympics in Japan.

This prototype of Relay 1 is covered with solar cells. The antenna on top is for receiving and transmitting communications signals; those at its base are for telemetry, tracking, and control. In orbit, Relay used spin-stabilization to orient the antennas to communicate with Earth.

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Agena-B Upper Stage at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Agena-B Upper Stage
This is the Agena-B upper stage used during the 1960s as an orbital injection vehicle for Midas and other satellites. It was also an intermediate stage booster for Ranger and early Mariner space probes. Made by Lockheed, it was fitted on the Thor or Atlas-D launch vehicles that became known as the Thor-Agena and Atlas-Agena.

Most notably, Agena-B also served as the Corona photo reconnaissance satellite which then flew under the cover name Discoverer. Agena-B used a restartable and gimbaled liquid-fuel rocket engine made by the Bell Aerospace Company. This Agena-B was transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the Smithsonian Institution in 1965.

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