Fifty years since Sputnik

For those of you old enough to remember the dawn of the Space Age in October 1957, the Sputnik-1 event forever changed the way we look at our island planet Earth. It also changed the United States defense priorities regarding science and engineering.

Sputnik-1 (Russian for "Satellite-1) was the first artificial satellite launched into a geocentric orbit around Earth. Lofted into a hundred-mile-high orbit by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, the twenty-three-inch diameter robot spacecraft marked a revolution in international communications. The idea of commsats (communications satellites) was first suggested by science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame in the 1940s.

Sputnik came about in the midst of the International Geophysical Year, a mammoth international undertaking to study terrestrial geophysics from pole to pole. When American officials said they planned to launch the U.S. Navys Vanguard-1 satellite sometime during the period to study space from a hundred-mile-high orbitpossibly in late 1957the Soviets quietly geared up to get their little steel ball, dubbed Sputnik-1, into space first.

While Sputnik-1 shamed the U.S. into finally getting its act together by launching our first orbiting satellite in 1958 (called Explorer-1), it still remains an amazing high-tech achievement.

Sputnik-1 was pumped full of pressurized nitrogen before launch on a powerful Russian R-7 or Sputnik rocket. As a result it provided an ingenious way to detect meteorites in space. Any loss of little Sputniks internal pressure would be picked up on the ground (via radio signal) indicating a meteor hit.

Sputnik-1 travelled at 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) per hour. Its radio signals were broadcast at 20.005 and 40.002 MHz. Scientists as well as ham-radio hobbyists were able to listen in on the first orbiting spacecraft.

The worlds first satellite lasted twenty-two days. Its on-board batteries died on Oct. 26, 1957. Before it burned while reentering the Earths atmosphere, Sputnik-1 traveled nearly 37 million miles in orbit.

A Sputnik-1 replica, built by French and Russian teenagers, was hand-launched from the Mir (Russian for Peace) space station in 1997. You can see a full-size Sputnik-1 model, all twenty-three inches of it, on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. A replica of the U.S.s first satellite, Explorer-1, hangs there too.

Whats in the Sky: On Monday, Oct. 8, the Moon, two stars, and the morning Star planet Venus will lineup at dawn. Venus will appear above the Moon with the planet Saturn and the star Regulus between Venus and the Moon.

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