World Space Week – Our Wide Sky

World Space Week

October 5, 2018


It's World Space Week and at Our Wide Sky we are going to celebrate with some short spacey blog posts over the next week.

The first question you will be asking is: Why does Space Week start on a Thursday?

Most 'weeks' start on a Monday, but weekdays are a human construct and meaningless in space. World Space Week starts on October 4. This is an important space anniversary, celebrating an event that is commonly known as the beginning of the "Space Age".

On October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched. It was the first human made object to orbit the Earth. It's primary mission was to reach orbit, and send out a radio signal.

The translation from the Russian of the full name of the satellite is "Elementary Satellite 1". "Sputnik" has a much better ring to it, it meant "fellow traveller" before it meant "satellite".

Sputnik reached orbit and stayed in orbit for 3 months. It was accompanied by it's launch rocket body for two of those months. It broadcast its message to Earth for only 29 days. This message was easily detectable by amateur radio enthusiasts.

The launch of Sputnik did not go smoothly. One of the boosters on the rocked didn't quite get to full power, and the rocket pitched almost to failure point. Full power was achieved only one second before the mission would have aborted. The fuel regulation system also failed and the rocket was operating at 4% above expected thrust for most of the flight. This resolved because of fuel depletion. Sputniks rocky road to fame was complete and it beeped its way through 29 days and completed the remainder of its 1440 orbits in silence. 

At 58 cm across, the shiny ball of Sputnik was a tiny satellite. If you've seen a model in a science museum you'll know how surprisingly small it was. 

Sputnik was originally proposed as a scientific mission. Its science instruments were designed to provide data on the ionosphere. Pressure and temperature data encoded into the radio transmissions. The temperature instrument was simply the activation of the on board temperature regulation fans at different temperatures. The sphere was filled with dry nitrogen and if the pressure dropped due to the sphere being punctured by a meteoroid this data would also have been transmitted. These were crude measurements, but they were the first from space. 

The money for the project required political support and in the context of the early cold war, the political advantages of being the first to launch something into orbit were clear.

Amy Shira Teitel at Vintage Space has a video all about the back story to the launch of Sputnik. 

The success of Sputnik led to the acceleration of efforts by many other countries to achieve "space firsts". The Space Age is political, commercial, industrial, military, and also a tool for propaganda and nationalism. It is also scientific, inspirational and fueled by the human desire for exploration and discovery.

In the 60 years since Sputnik launched, human endeavours in space have reached out to the planets, to our Star, observed our own planet in extraordinary detail, and contributed to the health and well being of people everywhere. We have seen deep into our Solar System, landed robots on planets, asteroids and comets. We are filling our orbit with even tinier satellites and finding ways to remove space junk from orbit. Humans have lived in space continuously for over 18 years. 

It's been an amazing ride since Sputnik. It's not stopping yet.

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