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65th Anniversary of Sputnik and the Satellite Revolution

30 Sep 2022, 2:00 am

[A replica of Sputnik 1. Credit: NSSDC/NASA]

[From NOAA NESDIS]  65 years ago a small metal sphere, 23 inches in diameter and weighing only 184 pounds, forever changed the way we see our planet.

On October 4, 1957 the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, becoming the first artificial satellite to be successfully placed in orbit around Earth. Launched during the International Geophysical Year, a year dedicated to intense worldwide research on satellites and the atmosphere, Sputnik ushered in the Space Age.

[Sputnik transmitted its signal on the 20.005 and 40.002 MHz and was monitored by amateur radio operators and scientists around the globe. Here, a radio operator plays Sputnik signals at the State Fair of Texas on October 9, 1957. Credit: (Photo from Dallas News)]

Taking 96.2 minutes to complete an orbit, Sputnik continually transmitted signals back to Earth and provided data on the density of the upper atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals through the ionosphere. Sputnik continued to transmit for three weeks until its onboard chemical batteries failed.

[The actual Sputnik 1 signal from NASA]

In total, the spacecraft spent a full three months in space, traveling nearly 43.5 million miles (1,400 complete orbits), before burning up in the atmosphere on January 4, 1958.

The unexpected success of Sputnik’s launch sparked a space race between Cold War rivals, the United States and the former Soviet Union. This scramble for spaceflight superiority led to the establishment of our nation’s early space programs and the launch of Explorer-1 in 1958, the first operational U.S. satellite.

[Sputnik 1’s interior. Credit: NASA]

These early satellites sent the scientific world into a satellite revolution, opening the door for some of the greatest scientific advancements of our time including the creation of global positioning systems, manned missions to space, television, global communications and, of course, weather satellites.

[The TIROS-1 weather satellite. Credit: NASA]

Soon after the United States began putting satellites in orbit, the first meteorological experiment would successfully make it to space in 1959 onboard the Explorer-7 satellite. In 1960, the Television Infrared Observation Satellite (or TIROS-1) became the first successful dedicated weather satellite in space.

[One of the first images from the TIROS-1 satellite, April 1, 1960. Credit: NASA]

NOAA’s satellite operations grew out of these early space programs and the nation’s desire to monitor and study Earth from space.

[Illustration of Explorer 1’s approximate path. Credit: U.S. Army, 1958.]

Today, NOAA’s advanced constellation of environmental satellites has become an integral part of life-saving weather and climate forecasts in the United States and continues to advance the way we understand and view our dynamic and changing planet from space.

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

About the author
Mace was born and raised in Minnesota, where his intrigue for weather and broadcasting grew at a young age. His 30 years in broadcasting have taken him all across the Midwest and in the South.