On October 4, 1957, the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union. Thus, began the space age. It orbited the Earth until January 4, 1958. Sputnik made 1440 orbits and traveled about 70 million kilometers (43 million miles).
The successful launch shocked the world, according to NASA, and giving the former Soviet Union the distinction of putting the first human-made object into space. Its “unanticipated” success precipitated the Sputnik crisis in the United States and triggered the Space Race, a part of the Cold War.
The word ‘Sputnik’ originally meant ‘fellow traveler,’ but has become synonymous with ‘satellite’ in modern Russian.
Today is the 62nd anniversary of Sputnik 1’s launch. Russian space agency Roscosmos has published a video on Twitter to celebrate.
The speed of Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1 traveled at about 29,000 km/h (18,000 mph; 8,100 m/s), taking 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit.
It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz, which were monitored by radio operators throughout the world. The signals continued for 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on 26 October 1957.
Sputnik burned up on 4 January 1958 while reentering Earth’s atmosphere, after three months, 1440 completed orbits of the Earth, and a distance traveled of about 70 million km (43 million mi).
Modern satellites and GPS
The launch of Sputnik also planted the seeds for the development of modern satellite navigation. Two American physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) decided to monitor Sputnik’s radio transmissions and within hours realized that, because of the Doppler effect, they could pinpoint where the satellite was along its orbit.
The Director of the APL gave them access to their UNIVAC I (see notes 1) to do the heavy calculations required.
Early the next year, Frank McClure, the deputy director of the APL, asked Guier and Weiffenbach to investigate the inverse problem: pinpointing the user’s location, given the satellite’s. At the time, the Navy was developing the submarine-launched Polaris missile, which required them to know the submarine’s location. This led them and APL to develop the TRANSIT system, a forerunner of modern Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.
- The UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I) was the first general-purpose electronic digital computer design for business applications produced in the United States. UNIVAC I used about 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 16,686 pounds (8.3 short tons; 7.6 t), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second running on a 2.25 MHz clock. The Central Complex alone (i.e. the processor and memory unit) was 4.3 meters (14.1 feet) by 2.4 meters (7.87 feet) by 2.6 meters (8.53 feet) high. The complete system occupied more than 35.5 m² (382 ft²) of floor space.