This week marks the 60th anniversary since we said goodbye to our beloved Sputnik 1 – the first ever artificial Earth satellite.
But seriously. Sputnik 1 was the space probe that the USSR launched to orbit the Earth. The probe itself was just 58.5cm in diameter, which is about the size of one of those gym balls that trendy people have in their office, but contained electronic gadgetry instead of empty air. Having said that, all the space within the probe was filled with nitrogen and used to measure the atmospheric pressure of its environment. It also sent back data on internal temperature and electron density of the ionosphere – a region of charged gases found between 60km and 1,000km above sea level.
The probe was destroyed by re-entry heating; the intense heat caused by friction between air particles and the probe due to the high speeds.
Sputnik’s orbit was at its lowest at 223km, and its peak was at 950km. For reference, most satellites orbit at around 36,000km, far above the atmosphere. Sputnik never completely escaped Earth’s atmosphere, but did reach the exosphere, a region of space where the atmospheric pressure is so low that it’s practically a vacuum.
The batteries ran out on the 26th of October, 1957, 22 days after launch. It wasn’t until two months and a week later when the probe was destroyed by re-entry heating; the intense heat caused by friction between air particles and the probe due to the high speeds. Despite only operating for three weeks, however, Sputnik changed life as we know it.
Firstly, it got the USA pretty scared, causing them to ramp up the investment in education and space development. This included the founding of NASA, almost a year after Sputnik’s launch. NASA has since helped develop artificial limbs, memory foam, even MRI scanners.
Sputnik 1’s success still holds influence over our current existence.
The Soviet satellite also helped test the legal waters for space development. Back then, nobody was sure what to think about launching things into space, and no ground rules had been set. By launching their probe, the USSR demonstrated that people weren’t really that opposed to it.
Sputnik had two other members in its program; Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika into space, and Sputnik 3, which was used to measure Earth’s physical properties. The program was officially discontinued by the USSR and replaced by newer technologies, but Sputnik 1’s success still holds influence over our current existence.