Is Sputnik Still In Space?

A series of repeated beeps that any ham radio operator with a big enough rig could hear, changed the course of the twentieth century and left an indelible mark on human history.

On the Fourth of October, nineteen fifty seven the United States of Soviet Russia launched the first man made satellite, into low Earth orbit and officially became the first nation to reach the last frontier.

It was the beginning of the space race and intensified the Cold War, which has periodically thawed and refrozen at regular intervals in the intervening half century, between Russia (then known as the USSR) and America.

Orbiting the Earth once every ninety minutes, Sputnik 1 was visible to the whole world and whipped up a nationalistic fervor in America that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s vow to land a man on the surface of the moon by the end of the nineteen-sixties.

The lunar landing was America’s only victory in the Space Race as the Soviets regularly beat them to the punch, launching the first man and the first woman into space, And it all started with the launch of Sputnik 1.

Given how famous the satellite became, and still is, it’s surprising how much, or rather how little time it actually spent in space. By the time America launched its answer to Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, the Soviet Union had already launched Sputnik 2, carrying Laika the dog into a similar low Earth orbit and had proved that it was possible to launch a living creature into space.

The first Sputnik satellite made just fourteen hundred orbits of Earth before having completed a journey of forty-three million miles it went silent and disintegrated when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on the Fourth of January, nineteen fifty eight.

Conversely, Explorer 1 which was launched by America on the Thirty First of January, nineteen fifty eight spent more than twelve years in space before it finally crashed back to Earth, burning up on re-entry on the Thirty First of March, nineteen seventy.

So why did Explorer remain in space for so long while Sputnik didn’t? It was, and is, all a question of the orbital height that each of the satellites managed to reach.

The Russian launched satellite orbited Earth at a much lower distance and altitude than Explorer 1 did, and that orbit, because of its relative lack of height began to slowly decay following its first successful circumnavigation of the globe.

It was a doomed mission from the start and both the Russians and the Americans when they finally confirmed the launch of Sputnik, knew it.

But if Sputnik was always going to fail and fall out of the sky so soon after it was launched, what was the point of launching it in the first place? Why didn’t the Russian’s wait until they could launch the satellite further into orbit?

The whole point of Sputnik 1 was to be first. The duration of its mission wasn’t nearly as important as the mission itself, and even if Sputnik had only completed a handful of successful orbits, it would still have been deemed a success as it was the first artificial satellite launched into Earth orbit and secured victory for the Soviet Union in the opening salvo of the Space Race.

All that mattered was who could reach Space first, and with Sputnik, the Soviets managed to out launch, and out fly the country that would soon become its nemesis, America.

Even though it seemed like a failure to the millions who watched intently, to the men and women who launched it into orbit, Sputnik 1 was, and always will be, a glorious testament to the spirit of endeavor.

What Is The Oldest Satellite Still Operating?

That question is entirely dependent on how the word “operating” is defined and how you interpret it.

 If it’s taken to mean what is the modest satellite in orbit that is still being studied and providing relevant data to those observing it, then the answer is Vanguard 1 which was launched by the United States of America on the seventeenth of March nineteen fifty eight and was, and still is the fourth artificial satellite to be launched into Earth Orbit.

Even though it stopped communicating with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in nineteen sixty four, its orbital path is still being scrutinized and studied in order to further and better understand orbital decay and drag, and the flight patterns of satellites in Earth orbit.

Up until July two thousand and sixteen, the oldest working satellite and functional spacecraft in earth Orbit was the GOES-3, which was originally launched as, and was intended to be a Geostationary Orbital Environmental Satellite (hence the acronym it became known by), on June Sixteenth, nineteen seventy eight.

The satellite monitored Earth’s ever-changing weather patterns for close to a decade until its orbital imaging capability stopped functioning which rendered it useless as a weather satellite,

However, as it could still send and receive geostationary information, the GOES-3 entered a new stage in its life and for the next twenty-eight years was used by a variety of different scientific organizations as a communications satellite, that served in a multitude of different capacities and proved to be an indispensable scientific tool.

Having outlived multiple administrations and the operational life of the Space Shuttle and the greatest period of upheaval in NASA’s long history, the decision to retire GEOS-3 was finally made in the opening months of two thousand and sixteen.

At the beginning of June, NASA started to enact their complicated plan and began the first of a series of twenty complicated orbital adjustments and maneuvers that were designed to alter the position of GOES-3 and shift it into a higher “graveyard” orbit.

After two weeks of careful positioning and tracking, GOES-3 was at long last taken out of its orbital geostationary path and was decommissioned on June Twenty-Ninth, two thousand and sixteen.

After thirty eight years of faithful service, the longest-serving, still functional satellite in the history of space exploration was retired. And if it hadn’t been forcibly taken out of the game, GOS-3 would probably still be in use today. 

Gordon Watts
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