See key dates relating to early discoveries about natural and artificial satellites in this timeline.

6th century BCE – Ancient Greek geocentric model

Ancient Greek astronomers believe the Earth is the centre of the Universe and that all celestial bodies orbit the Earth. Anaximander describes this in c550 BCE. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and Claudius Ptolemy (c100–c170 CE) develop more complex geocentric models.

14th century – Ibn al-Shatir anticipates Copernicus

Islamic astronomer Ibn al-Shatir (1304–1375) of the Maragha school accepts the geocentric model but produces configurations that challenge the Ptolemaic model. His calculations are similar to the later calculations of Copernicus.

1543 – Copernicus’s heliocentric model

Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473–1543) proposes that the Sun is stationary in the centre of the Universe and the Earth and other planets revolve around it. The church suppresses this controversial idea but it revolutionises astronomy.

1572 – Tycho Brahe’s accurate measurements

Danish astronomer Tycho (Tyge) Brahe (1546–1601) designs and builds instruments that allow him to accurately observe stellar and planetary positions. His records of the motion of Mars are later used by Kepler.

1609–1610 – Galileo and heliocentrism

Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei’s improvements to the telescope allow him to observe Venus’s phases, the largest satellites of Jupiter, a supernova and sunspots. His discoveries prove the Copernican heliocentric system. The Roman Inquisition finds him guilty of heresy.

1610 – Kepler uses the term ‘satellite’

German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) uses the term ‘satellite’ to describe the moons orbiting Jupiter. He develops the three laws of planetary motion, and his accurate astronomical tables provide evidence for the Copernican heliocentric model.

1687 – Newton and gravity

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) publishes Principia in which he states the three laws of motion and describes universal gravity. This lays the foundation for our understanding of rockets, satellites and orbits.

1869–1879 – First fictional artificial satellites

The first fictional depictions of satellites being launched into orbit are published in Edward Everett Hale’s short story The Brick Moon (1869) and Jules Verne’s The Begum’s Fortune (1879).

1903 – First orbit of Earth calculated

Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) proposes using rocketry to launch spacecraft. He calculates the orbital speed required for a minimal orbit around the Earth at 8 km/s and that a multi-stage rocket fuelled by liquid propellants could be used to achieve this.

1928 – First description of a space station

Slovenian Herman Potočnik (1892–1929) describes geostationary satellites and communication between them and Earth using radio. He also describes a space station in detail and the use of orbiting spacecraft for detailed observation of the Earth and scientific experiments.

1945 – Satellite communications system proposed

British science fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke (1917–2008) publishes an article that shows how geostationary satellites could be used for worldwide radio and television broadcasts and communication.

1957 – First artificial satellite launch

The Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit around the Earth. It has a mass of 83.6 kg and travels in an elliptical orbit at a height above the Earth between 939 km and 215 km. It travels at 29,000 km/h and takes 96.2 minutes for each orbit.

1960 – First successful weather satellite

NASA launches Tiros-1, the first weather satellite considered a success. It transmits infrared images of Earth’s cloud cover and is able to detect and chart hurricanes. This begins the Tiros programme, which is followed by the Nimbus programme of weather satellites.

1961 – First person to orbit Earth

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968) becomes the first person to orbit the Earth in his Vostok spacecraft. After this, he becomes an international celebrity and undertakes several overseas tours.

1962 – First communications satellite

The first live transatlantic telecast is broadcast using Telstar-1, a low-orbit satellite. Later, an international global satellite consortium (Intelsat) is formed, which manages a constellation of communications satellites providing international broadcast services.

1970 – China launches its first satellite

China launches its first satellite Dongfanghong 1 into Earth orbit on its Long March rocket, becoming the fifth nation to achieve independent launch capability. The other nations are the Soviet Union (1957), the USA (1958), France (1965) and Japan (1970).

1971 – First space station launched

The Soviet Union launches the first space station Salyut 1. It is monolithic – constructed and launched in one piece. When all its supplies and equipment are used up, it is abandoned. The Salyut programme continues until 1986.

1972 – Beginning of Landsat programme

The Earth Resources Technology Satellite is launched. This begins the longest-running programme of satellite imagery of the Earth, later renamed Landsat. Landsat instruments acquire millions of images that are used to evaluate natural and human changes to the Earth.

1979 – ESA’s first launch

The European Space Agency (ESA) launches Ariane-1, which is designed primarily to put two telecommunications satellites into orbit. This begins ESA’s space programme that continues into the present.

1981 – First space shuttle launched

The first space shuttle Columbia is launched with astronauts John W Young and Robert L Crippen. This is the beginning the American Space Shuttle programme, which takes astronauts and satellites into orbit around the Earth. This programme continues for 30 years.

1990 - Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope is carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle. Its orbit outside the Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take sharp images that lead to breakthroughs in astrophysics, for example, determining the rate of the Universe’s expansion.

1994 – First GPS constellation

The first global positioning system constellation becomes operational. It consists of 24 geosynchronous satellites. GPS is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on or near the Earth.

1998 – International Space Station launched

The first component of the modular International Space Station is launched. It is an international collaboration involving Russia, the USA, the European Union, Japan and Canada. It serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory.

2004 – Satellite launched to 'chase comet'

In March the European Space Agency launches the Rosetta from French Guiana. The Rosetta, carrying the lander probe Philae, is destined to rendezvous with Comet 67P in 2014.

2012 – 1000 satellites orbit the Earth

More than a thousand active satellites orbit the Earth. The exact number of operational satellites is difficult to determine for security reasons, but the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) satellites database lists 1016 active satellites.

2014 – Probe lands on comet

In August the spacecraft Rosetta is the first to catch up with a comet and land a probe - Philae - on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

25 May 2017 – World's first private orbital launch site

Rocket Lab launches their Electron rocket from their Mahia Peninsula based orbital launch site, in New Zealand. Rocket Lab's Mahia facility is the world's first private orbital launch site and is part of a programme of work to make launching a satellite more cost effective in order to open space up to more organisations.

21 January 2018 – New Zealand's first satellite

Rocket Lab successfully deployed 4 small satellites on their second test launch from Mahia. Three were for US based corporations but the fourth 'secret satellite' was a New Zealand effort - the Humanity Star. The Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere made from carbon fibre with 65 highly reflective panels. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said he wanted the first New Zealand satellite to be something special for everyone, "The humanity star is a way of looking beyond our immediate situation, whatever that may be, and understanding we are all in this together as one species." There is a dedicated website for the Humanity Star where the satellite path is being tracked.

    Published 27 March 2013, Updated 25 January 2018