Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched into orbit | This day in space (4 Oct. 1957)

Today is a day that changed history. With one small sphere, the Soviet Union spurred a new space race, one that led to the opening of NASA less than a year later. On this day, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into low Earth orbit. Americans were amazed and terrified as they heard the beeps and looked overhead to see the first artificial satellite.

Sputnik 1 was a simple metallic design compared to modern telescopes. A 23-inch diameter sphere made up the body while four antennas jutted out to the rear. Inside the satellite, was a transmitter connected to the antennas, with three silver-zinc batteries to power it all. This combined for a total weight of 183 pounds.

Sputnik 1 was, quite simply, a test satellite. It was used to prove systems both on the ground and in space. The Soviet Union used Sputnik to test out radio and optical orbital tracking as well as learn how radio waves propagate through the atmosphere. The satellite lasted three weeks before the Sputnik’s batteries died, and stayed in orbit another two more months before the orbit decayed and the satellite burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Animation credit: Popular Mechanics

The success of Sputnik 1 was a shock for America, one that showed what humanity is capable of. Sputnik was a first that will never be forgotten. It spurred the race that landed American boots on the Moon, and now we prepare to return. There is no doubt that what Sputnik 1 taught the world about space and satellites is crucial, even today.

Below you can listen to a series of radio signal beeps that Sputnik 1 emitted from low Earth orbit.

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