It had antennae and it went round and round!
Sixty years ago, Sputnik became the first satellite in space and changed the world forever. Its polished surfaces and distinctive antennae are now unmistakable.
Launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, this shiny orb kick-started the space race and opened up the heavens for mankind to explore.
The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path.
The first satellite was designed to be simple and effective. It had no scientific equipment, just batteries, a thermal regulation system and a transmission module. The decision to keep it simple meant the Russian engineers could race to launch first, beating the United States. As soon as Sputnik was launched it began orbiting the world every 98 minutes.
A single watt of power transmitted its distinctive “beep, beep, beep” as it flew around the world, an act that effectively established “Freedom of Space” — the principle that crossing national borders in space does not violate national airspace. Sputnik’s broadcast continued for 21 days. The satellite fell out of orbit and burned up on re-entry three months after its launch, in January 1958.
The original satellite is long gone, but test models and engineering replicas, some more authentic than others, can be found in various museums and collections. The private museum of RSC Energia in Moscow is a treasure trove of pioneering space probes including one of the original Sputnik flight spares, built in 1957. RSC Energia is the Russian state company that built the world’s first satellite.
You can own your own replica is you have some spare change. A replica of the famous satellite went on sale at Bonhams in New York City as part of their Air and Space Sale on September 27, 2017. The full scale SPUTNIK-1 EMC/EMI Lab Model sold for US$ 847,500 (AU$ 1,085,065).
Despite its simplicity, Sputnik 1 also served science. The USSR built a network of observational stations throughout the country to track its path. Based on those observations, researchers obtained new information on the atmospheric density at Sputnik’s altitudes, and a new branch of science was conceived – space geodesy. Without any specific scientific equipment, however, Sputnik 1 was considered by many to be a mere toy sent for the sake of the space race. Its successors, Sputnik 2 and Sputnik 3, were much more scientific in their missions. On November 3, 1957, Sputnik 2 carried the dog Laika, the first living being in space. Sputnik 3 which included scientific payload, was launched on May 15, 1958.
Sputnik 3 carried 12 instruments (weighing 968 kilograms out of a total of 1,327 kilograms for the entire satellite) to study solar-charged particles, electrical and magnetic fields in space, ion content and density of the upper atmosphere, and the population of micrometeoroids. Sputnik 3 data showed that there are two radiation belts around the Earth: The inner belt consists primarily of protons, whereas the outer one has a mostly electron population. Data from Sputnik 3 supported the idea that particles precipitating from the belts were the cause of auroras and ground-level electrical discharges. From there, the picture of Earth’s space environment started to assemble. The last of the formally designated Sputnik missions, Korabl-Sputnik 5, in 1961 carried a dog, Zvezdochka, along with a realistic mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich.
Sputnik 2 and Sputnik 3 marked two sharply divergent styles of space exploration: crewed (if only with dogs) versus automatic. The first approach was more appealing to the general audience, which got them used to the idea of future colonization of space. The second strategy implied that remote-sensing techniques and special robots could fully replace human beings in space. Later, when the real hostility of the space environment was assessed, the idea of extended human space travel seemed less viable than even at the time of Yuri Gagarin—the first human in space—and the Apollo program. It is now known that humans can live and work in near-Earth space; it is less clear what tasks can be done only in space and only with human hands.
The greatest opportunity Sputnik 1 and its many descendants gave to science is the opportunity not to merely observe, but to run active experiments in interplanetary (even interstellar) space or on the surface of other planets and bodies. We are nowhere near the limit of this opportunity, and this is what gives space science its constant boost.
Over the years, the impact of Sputnik continued in the literal “sputniks” (which is Russian for satellite) that followed, in the broader development of the Soviet and Russian space programs, and ultimately in the entire program of cosmic exploration that the tiny orbiting ball initiated.
Sputnik’s legacy lives on today. Every astronaut bound for the ISS blasts off from the same Baikonur cosmodrome as Sputnik I did. And Russian space agency Roscosmos has many new projects – including the Federation deep space capsule and the new Vostochny launch pad in eastern Russia.
The launch came during the depths of the Cold War, when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House and America’s space interests were almost entirely focused on building rockets powerful enough to deliver nuclear warheads across intercontinental distances. NASA did not yet exist, and the notion of traveling into orbit—let alone journeying to the moon and beyond—seemed little more than science fiction.
Yet by then, visionaries had not merely dreamed of space flight but had laid the foundation for making it a reality. The mathematical and engineering breakthroughs achieved by Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy (a Russian), Hermann Oberth (a German), and Robert Goddard (an American) proved that rocketing away from Earth was entirely possible.
The launch expanded the Cold War to outer space and shook up American technological smugness. It ushered in new political, military, technological and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race. And it probably helped John Kennedy get elected president in 1960.
The worldwide reaction was a mixture of awe and apprehension. The Space Age – and the Space Race – had begun. American scientists had known the launch was coming because their Soviet counterparts had told them to expect it. But to an American public that had become accustomed to their country’s growing global primacy, the orbiting of Sputnik 1 was a traumatic wake-up call that caused great anxiety.
The apprehension wasn’t caused by the satellite, but by the missile that put it into space. It was an intercontinental ballistic missile that the Soviet Union had developed, they tested it just the month before for the very first time, and for the first time in its recent history the United States felt threatened.
Soviet secrecy surrounding the project made strained Soviet resources appear to be deep, secret reserves. Sputnik’s launch marked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchëv’s first use of rockets for propaganda purposes. It also demonstrated the capabilities of the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R–7, which had only flown once before.
The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) because the scientists knew that the cycles of solar activity would be at a high point then. In October 1954, the council adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface.
In July 1955, the White House announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard proposal was chosen to represent the U.S. during the IGY.
The Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard. Its size was more impressive than Vanguard’s intended 1.5 kg payload. In addition, the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including the dog Laika.
Immediately after the Sputnik I launch in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furore by approving funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a simultaneous alternative to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project.
On January 31, 1958, the tide changed, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, named after principal investigator James Van Allen. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft.
The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the “Space Act”), which created NASA as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.
Sputnik was the beginning of a long list of Russian firsts:
- The first living being in space – the dog Laika onboard Sputnik II in 1957, who unfortunately did not survive the experience
- The first man in space – Yuri Gagarin, 1961, who did survive the experience
- The first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova, 1963
- The first spacewalk – by Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov, 1965
- The first spacecraft on the moon – Luna 2, 1959
- The first spacecraft on Venus – Venera 7, 1970
- The first soft landing on Mars – Mars 3, 1971
However, with the American moon landings in 1969, the space race that Sputnik began started to draw to a close.
Today it’s all about cooperation, rather than competition, between Roscosmos, ESA, NASA and other space agencies.
One of the most ambitious current collaborations is ExoMars, a two-part effort between ESA and the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities since 2013 to search for signs of past and present life on Mars. The first ExoMars mission, launched in 2016, consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander. TGO will perform a thorough study of Martian atmospheric trace gases, which may inform us about possible ongoing biological activity. TGO is currently circling Mars and will start its scientific mission once it reaches its final orbit in April 2018. The second ExoMars mission, to be launched in 2020, comprises a European rover and a Russian stationary surface platform that will extend the studies of geochemistry and possible biochemistry to the surface. The rover bears two instruments built in Russia; the descent module to land on Mars is provided by Roscosmos, as is the Proton launcher for this mission.
Russia is also contributing several instruments to the upcoming European-Japanese BepiColombo mission to Mercury. This dual-probe spacecraft aims to analyze the interior of the smallest planet, its interaction with solar wind, and the composition of its upper surface.
In the 2020s, Roscosmos plans to participate in two major new space-plasma and solar missions. One, called Resonance, consists of several identical spacecraft that will orbit within a single “tube” of flux in Earth’s inner magnetosphere, closely monitoring interactions between particles and waves in this region. Such observations will enable new insights into space weather, which can disrupt communications and overload power lines on Earth. Interhelioprobe is a mission to send two identical spacecraft to within 45 million kilometers of the Sun, high out of the plane of the Solar System. No spacecraft has yet operated in these regions. Interhelioprobe is not expected to launch until after the end of the current Federal Space Program of the Russian Federation in 2025, however, so its future is especially sensitive to the divine laughter that often greets ambitious plans.
Old proverb: If you want to make God laugh, tell her about your plans.
More information on American Scientist.