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50th anniversary of Sputnik satellite launch

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October 4, 2007

Sputnik 1 launched on October 4th 1957

Sputnik 1 launched on October 4th 1957

October 4, 2007 Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite. Even half a century on, the impact of the October 4th 1957 launch that saw the Soviet Union’s satellite became the first to be put into orbit still resonates as a momentous achievement in the history of human endeavor. Considered the first real blow in the "Space race" between the USSR and the USA, the launch provided the springboard for an exciting period of space exploration carried out by the two countries. This chain of events culminated in the first launch of a human into space in 1961, with Yuri Gagarin sent into orbit aboard the Soviet Union’s spacecraft, Vostok 1, and the 1969 moon landing by the USA with the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

The launch half a century ago changed the way in which humans viewed the possibilities of space exploration and was a landmark moment in the race to be the first to control regions beyond the earth. Sputnik 1 was only about the size of a basketball, being only a 23 inch (585mm) diameter sphere. It weighed 183 pounds (84 kg) and had four antennas attached that measured about 3 meters in length. The satellite carried two radio transmitters which provided information on the density of the earth’s atmospheric layers, as well as the first opportunity to detect meteorites. Sputnik is believed to have orbited the earth at a height of around 250km (150 miles) and traveled at 29,000km per hour, which meant that it went around the earth every 98 minutes before losing power after 22 days in orbit and burning up upon re-entry.

The launched of the Sputnik by the USSR signaled a technological triumph over the United States, who two months later attempted to launch there own satellite, Vanguard 1, which embarrassingly exploded whilst being launched in late 1957. The US would not have a successful satellite launch into outer space until February 1958, with Explorer 1.

In the 50 years since the first successful satellite orbit humans have continuously pushed the boundaries of space exploration. The Sputnik 1 mission was the first and probably the most significant launch of its kind and certainly sparked a new level of scientific discoveries, especially between the players in the cold war. Now there are close to 1000 satellites that orbit the earth, carrying out all kinds of investigations including communications, weather observations and mechanical probes of the regions we refer to as outer space. Countless information has been gained through the use of satellites based on the original Sputnik 1.

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