It’s fifty years old and it’s a piece of junk. In another couple hundred years, it’s destined to be destroyed in a violent and fiery blaze of glory.
But it’s a lovable piece of junk. And maybe — just maybe — it deserves to be on some nation registry of history things.
It’s Vanguard 1, currently the old piece of space junk orbiting the Earth. And it’s celebrating half a century of weightlessness.
Vanguard 1 was the fourth artificial satellite put into space by man. The previous three long ago succumbed to the Earth’s gravity and atmospheric drag. But Vanguard 1 is still up there, having completed almost 200,000 orbits so far. It circles the Earth every two hours and fifteen minutes in a highly-elliptical path that takes it almost 2500 miles from the Earth at its highest before dipping to a low of about 650 miles.
And it’s that “low” that’s eventually going to kill it. With every orbit, it briefly touches the very outer limits of our atmosphere. So briefly that it will still be up there another 200 years or so. But eventually, it will run out of inertia and become nothing more than a shooting star for my great, great grandchild to wish upon.
It’s not much to look at. It’s roughly spherical, about six inches in diameter. Six short antennae protrude, one from each side. On Earth, it weighed less than three and a half pounds. In space, it weighs nothing.
It’s shiny on all sides, the first satellite to be solar powered. That was revolutionary at the time, and it allowed Vanguard 1 to transmit a good radio signal for more than six years. At a time when most satellites were burning up in the atmosphere or blowing up on the launch pad, trusty little Vanguard 1 was still up there, beeping its location to anyone who wanted to tune to its 5 milliwatt signal.
Even today, it’s being tracked optically and through radar. Its symmetrical shape and unique orbit has given us valuable information about the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and the precise shape of the Earth. By tracking slight variations in its orbit, scientists determined that the Earth is slightly “pear” shaped; the southern hemisphere is a tiny bit bigger than its northern cousin. And by watching the orbit degrade slightly through the years, we can measure the extent that upper limits of the atmosphere rises and falls with the sun’s 11-year cycles. Such serendipitous research wasn’t imagined when it was launched. At the time, they were just happy to get it off the ground in one piece.
Vanguard 1 was launched on March 17, 1958, at a time when the Russians were beating us at everything and President Eisenhower was looking forward to retirement and to handing the reigns of the presidency over to Vice President Nixon in a couple of years. From its unique vantage point, it has watched as Man has gone to the moon. It watched Skylab orbit the Earth and fall back in the ocean. It has watched more than a hundred Shuttle missions and witnessed two Shuttle disasters. It has waved an antenna at the International Space Station a time or two.
Its beeper has fallen silent over the years. And the mirrored finish of its solar panels probably isn’t as glossy as it used to be. But it continues to circle the Earth proudly, knowing that it’s the granddaddy of all the satellites. Perhaps, before it’s too late, we can send a spacecraft to meet it in its orbit, gently pluck it, and bring it back home. It would be a fitting tribute for a piece of space junk that deserves a little more respect than most.
After all, Vanguard 1 is a survivor.