[April 19, 1960] Where we are (Space News Round-up)

Remember the years before Sputnik when space news comprised semi-annual rocket launch reports, annual Willy Ley books, and the occasional Bonestell/Von Braun coffee table book?

Even after Sputnik, weeks would go by without a noteworthy event.  But, slowly but surely, the pace of space launches has increased.  Just this last week, I caught wind of four exciting pieces of news.  I can imagine a day in the not too distant future when I have to pick and choose from a myriad of stories rather than reporting on every mission.

So what happened this week?  First off, on April 13, 1960, the Navy launched, on an Air Force Thor Able-Star rocket, Transit 1B (somehow, I missed the failed launch of its earlier brother, Transit 1A, last September).  It is a brand new kind of satellite, using the simplest of concepts. 

Have you ever noticed how a train’s whistle rises in pitch as the locomotive approaches, and then the pitch lowers as the train moves away?  This is because the sound waves from the whistle are compressed by the train’s motion as it nears; conversely, the waves stretch out as the train departs.  The wavelength determines the whistle’s pitch, so a moving train’s whistle will never play entirely true—unless you happen to be riding the train and, thus, going the same velocity.

Now, if one knows the true pitch of the whistle, one can mathematically figure out how fast the train is going with respect to the listener just by comparing the true pitch to the heard pitch.  Imagine a satellite equipped with a whistle (a radio transmitter, actually; sound doesn’t travel through the vacuum of space).  Since the satellite is always moving with respect to the ground observer, if that observer knows the true wavelength of the satellite’s signal, then s/he can figure out how fast the satellite is going from the wavelength of the observed signal.  Knowing the orbital path of the satellite, it is then easy to determine exactly where one must be at any given time to hear the satellite’s signal at the received pitch.

In other words, using just a satellite, a transmitter, a receiver, and a computerized calculator, one can determine one’s position to within one-half of a kilometer.  Now, this isn’t good enough to help you navigate your car to work or a weekend party, but it is quite sufficient to help ships find their way at sea.  In particular, America’s submarines will use Transit for high-accuracy navigation.  But someday, I can imagine Transit’s descendants providing pinpoint accuracy to civilians.  Imagine a suitcase sized machine that could tell you where you are to the resolution of just a few meters!  Yet another way satellites are returning on their investment.  Soon, we’ll wonder how we ever did without them.

It may be a while before we say that about the Air Force’s Discoverer program.  Designed (ostensibly) to carry biological samples to and from orbit, the series has not yet been successful.  Sometimes the rocket malfunctions.  Sometimes the capsule gets lots on reentry.  And sometimes, the capsule stays forever in space.  That’s what happened this time, to Discoverer 11.  The rocket launch on April 15 was successful, but it looks like the reentry capsule suffered separation anxiety after detaching from its mothership.  Both are still in orbit, and it looks like they will remain there, close to each other, until friction with the atmosphere causes them to become artificial meteors.

Speaking of spy satellites (ahem), the first weather satellite, continues to send beautiful pictures of Earth’s weather.  Interestingly, NASA goes out of its way to deny that TIROS is being used for espionage (whereas the Air Force has been conspicuously quiet regarding Discoverer’s true role).  I believe NASA—TIROS’ cameras aren’t nearly good enough to return surveillance data, though there is no doubt the military could benefit from accurate weather reports.

Finally, Pioneer 5, the world’s first deep space probe, has passed the 5 million mile mark (20 times the distance to the Moon) and is still going strong!  So far, the probe has returned 100 hours of usable data on the “space weather” beyond the Earth’s influence.  I can’t wait to read the papers resulting from their analysis! 

And for the non-eggheads amongst my readers, while the scientific papers may not be of exceptional interest, the inventions they inspire likely will be.

See you soon!

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