Everyone knows about Sputnik, the tiny satellite that started the Space Race back in 1957, but everyone forgets that it burnt up just 3 months after it was launched – unlike an American satellite that went up just a few months later. Vanguard 1 was only the second ever successful U.S. satellite (after Explorer 1) but it is still up in space, having clocked up an amazing 5.7 billion miles over the last 50 years.
Something I hadn’t realized about Vanguard was that it is just 6 inches long – which led to it being dubbed the ‘grapefruit satellite’ by the envious Russians. Sputnik was 23 inches long – still tiny by modern standards, but a giant compared to Vanguard.
OK, so Vanguard’s been up in space for quite a while now. But was there any point in the satellite except to annoy the Soviets? Actually, it had some pretty amazing accomplishments considering how primitive it was. It surprised scientists at the time by showing that the Earth is not actually completely round, but is instead pear-shaped. Well only a little bit, but it’s still true. It’s pretty cool that a 3-pound lump of metal could discover stuff like this.
Vanguard was also the first ever spacecraft to use solar panels, a power source that kept it going for nearly 7 years until it stopped transmitting in 1964. In fact, estimates for its lifetime range from between 200 to 2000 years, after which it will plunge into our atmosphere and burn up.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t have to come down the same way as that US military satellite a few weeks ago.
Vanguard celebrates its 50th birthday Monday March 17, 2008.