Tag Archives: explorer

[October 31, 1962] Trick and Treat! (A Halloween candy wrap-up of the Space Race)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Halloween is normally a time for scares — for us to invoke, dress up as, and tell stories of various ghosts, ghoulies, and goblins.  But let’s face it.  We’ve had quite enough fright for one month, what with the Free and the Communist worlds just seconds from Midnight over the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.  Thankfully, that crisis has been resolved peacefully, with the Russians agreeing to dismantle their weapons and return them home (who knows what unreported concessions we may have made to assure that outcome).  Nevertheless, with our heart rates still elevated, I think the best remedy is to skip terror this time around and focus on the things that make us smile:

Candy and space missions!

Niña and Pinta sail the magnetic oceans

Last year, I gushed rhapsodically about the voyage of Explorer 12, a vessel designed to map the contours of the Earth’s magnetic field.  The results did not disappoint; thanks to that little probe’s journey, we now know that there is a sharp boundary between the our planet’s magnetosphere and the magnetic emanations of our sun.  This, then, is the map of our unseen ocean, as of this year:

But how constant is this border, this magnetopause, between ours and the solar magnetic sea?  What are the mechanisms of its flow?  Moreover, what of the three charged “Van Allen” belts girdling the Earth?  And what impacts do our atmospheric atomic tests have on them, short and long-term?

That’s the nature of science.  Early experiments tend to provide more questions than answers!  Explorer 12, which ceased operations in late ’61, won’t be answering any more of them; however, NASA launched two more Explorers just this month to pick up where the magnetic Santa Maria left off.

Explorer 14 was launched October 2.  Like Explorer 12, it has a highly eccentric orbit in which the 89 pound spacecraft zooms 60,000 miles into the sky before flying near the Earth.  This takes the probe through all of the layers of the Earth’s magnetic field.  The experiment load is largely the same as Explorer 12’s, with a couple of additional sensors. 

Explorer 15 is a different kind of ship.  It only goes up to about 10,000 miles, and its mission is more focused on the artificial particle fields created as the result of nuclear explosions.  Unfortunately, when the spacecraft launched on October 27, it did not extend its “arms” — little weight-bearing spars — to slow down the spin imparted to it by its rocket.  Like an ice skater with her arms tucked in, Explorer 15 is spinning much faster than intended.  Nevertheless, good data is being gotten from five of its seven experiments.

Watch this space for exciting updates.  Between the new Explorer twins and the Venus probe, Mariner 2, now several million miles from Earth, the age of space magnetic exploration is truly underway!

Chocolate Arms Race

Since early this century, two superpowers have faced off, each developing a physical and sociological arsenal designed to sway the world into one’s camp or the other’s.  I am not speaking of the mortal struggle between Communism and Democracy…but that of Pennsylvania’s Hershey Company versus Minnesota’s Mars, Incorporated.

On the one side, we have the eponymous Hershey Bar, the conical Hershey’s Kisses, the peanut-infused Mr. Goodbar, the rice-included Krackel, etc.  On the other, the Milky Way bar, the Three Musketeers Bar, and most importantly (at least to this column’s editor) the peanutty Snickers Bar.

Of course, this oversimplifies things.  There are plenty of “Third World” candy makers, including Nestle’s (Crunch), Necco (Clark Bar), and Peter Paul (Mounds and Almond Joy).  In fact, my favorite chocolate-based candy is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, made by Harry Burnett Reese Candy Co.  Harry died six years ago, but I think we can trust his six sons to carry on the independent tradition that has made these confections so delicious. 

In fact, I wholeheartedly support greater parity among the world’s chocolatiers.  After all, we’ve just seen what crises can result in a bipolar world…

Canada joins the Space Race!

Typically, a Thor Agena B launch from Southern California means yet another Air Force “Discoverer” spy sat has gone up; such flights are now weekly occurrences.  But the flight that went up September 29 actually carried a civilian payload into polar orbit: Alouette 1, the first Canadian satellite. 

Alouette is designed to study the ionosphere, that charged layer of the atmosphere hundreds of miles up.  But unlike the sounding rockets routinely sent into the zone, Alouette will survey (or “sound”) the ionosphere from above.  Canada is particularly interested in understanding how and when the sun disrupts the region, interrupting radio communications.  Our neighbor to the north is a big country, after all, and it is the Northern Hemisphere’s first line of defense against Soviet missiles and bombers.  Radio is, therefore, vital to both defense and civilian interests.

According to early data, it looks like the highest “F2” layer of the ionosphere is as reflective to radio waves from the top as the bottom.  Alouette has also, by beaming multiple frequencies down to Earth, helped scientists determine what radio wavelengths aren’t blocked by the ionosphere. 

Sometime next year, Alouette will be joined by an United States “sounder” mission with a different experiment load.  Then we’ll have two sets of space-based data to corroborate with ground-based measurements.  Soon, one of the more mysterious layers of the atmosphere, one completely unknown to us a century ago, will be well understood.

Sweetly Sour

Some people love chocolate.  Strike that — most people love chocolate.  But I tend to favor fruit-flavored candies.  For instance, Smarties, Pixy Stix, the recent Starbust Fruit Chews, and brand new for this year: Lemonheads!

Made by Ferrara, the same folks who make Red Hots (which I also love), Lemonheads are a delicious hard candy mix of sour on the outside, sweet on the inside.  I have now made myself sick at least twice on these things, and I firmly intend to do so at least twice more.  I’m an adult, and no one can stop me.  Besides — it keeps me away from Candy Corn…

The Moon claims another Victim

Speaking of sour…first it was the three Air Force Pioneer missions launched in 1958 – none of them made it even halfway to the Moon.  Then the four Atlas Able Pioneer missions of 1959-60 didn’t even got into Earth orbit.  Now five out of five Ranger probes launched over the last year have failed. 

Launched October 17, the fifth of the Rangers went on the fritz just a few hours after take-off.  On the way to the Moon, the solar power transformer went kaput, leaving the spacecraft on battery power, which rapidly depleted.  Two days later, the silent ship sailed 9,000 miles over the surface of the Moon, after which ground-based ‘scopes quickly lost sight of it. 

Ranger 5 marked the last of the “Block II” line.  The two Block I spacecraft were supposed to stay in Earth orbit and do sky science, but neither of them lasted long enough.  None of the three Block IIs succeeded in their mission of smacking the Moon with their bulbous noses, filled with sensor equipment.  I suspect NASA is going to do a lot of work making sure the Block III craft, armed with cameras, reach their destination alive and snapping photos.  That is, if Congress doesn’t cut their funding.

Happy Halloween, and don’t let the news get you down. 




[February 1, 1962] Silver Lining (January Space Race round-up!)


by Gideon Marcus

January has been a frustrating month in the Space Race.  We are no closer to matching the Soviets in the manned competition, much less beating them, and our unmanned shots have been a disappointment, too.  That said, it’s not all bad news in January’s round-up: stick to it through the end, and you’ll see cause for cheer!

Quintuplets fail to deliver

The Air Force has been playing around with combined launches for a while now.  After all, if you’re going to spend millions of dollars to throw a booster away, you might as well get multiple bangs for your buck.  Sadly, the latest attempt, a Thor Ablestar launch on January 24 dubbed “Composite 1,” failed when the top stage tumbled in orbit and failed to separate from its payloads.

What we lost: SolRad 4, for measuring solar X-rays (only visible above the curtain of the atmosphere); Lofti 2, which would have examined the effects of Earth’s ionosphere on Very Low Frequency radio transmissions; Surcal, a strictly military probe designed to calibrate the navy’s communications net in orbit; the wholly civilian Injun 2, which would help map the Van Allen belts (see below); and Secor, a big balloon that would have helped the Army with their ranging equipment.

Copies of these probes will end up at some point, either launched together on a big rocket or separately on little ones.

Moon Miss-ion

It’s been a bad run of luck for NASA’s latest moon program, Project Ranger.  After the failure of the first two Ranger missions, designed to test the probe’s engineering and return sky science, there were high hopes for the lunar flight, launched January 26. 

Things went badly from the beginning.  Ranger 3 was pushed into a bad trajectory by a faulty guidance system.  Not only did it rush past the moon, failing both to hit the target or end up in orbit, but it was pointed the wrong way the entire length of the journey.  No useful data or pictures were obtained.  That nifty seismometer that makes up Ranger’s Rudolph nose went completely unused. 

Ranger 4, a carbon copy of #3, should launch in the next few months.  Hopefully, they’ll have the kinks worked out by then.  This is one of those clear places where the Communists are ahead in the space race, having pioneered both lunar orbit and the moon’s surface several years ago.

A rain check for Mercury

The third time turned out also not to be the charm for Major John Glenn.  His orbital Mercury mission has now been postponed three times.  It’s a good thing the Marine is so good-natured; I know I’d be frustrated.

The first delay happened on January 22 when there was a failure in the spacecraft’s oxygen system.  Definitely something I’d like working on a five hour flight!  On the 27th, cloud cover prevented the launch, and just today, there was a problem with the temperamental Atlas booster.  The next opportunity to launch won’t come until February 13.

So much is riding on this flight.  The Soviets have already launched two of theirs into orbit while we flutter futilely on the ground.  Newspapers and talking heads are already opining that we’ll have a Red-staffed space station and a Red-dominated moon before long if we don’t hurry to catch up. 

Explorer 12: Reaping the harvest

Here’s the good news: I’ve said before that the most exciting thing about a satellite is not its fiery launch but the heap of data it returns.  That’s where the taxpayer gets one’s money’s worth and where the scientist sees the payoff.  Explorer 12 was the latest in the series of probes (starting with America’s first, Explorer 1) sent into orbit to probe the hellish fields of charged particles that circle the Earth.  The spacecraft is still up there, though it went silent in December.  However, in its four months of life, it learned a great deal about the furthest reaches of our planet’s influence.

For one, Explorer 12 found that the outer of the two “Van Allen” belts around our planet is made mostly of protons rather than electrons (though there are still plenty of the latter — enough to make hanging around a dangerous proposition for astronauts).  Those protons, particularly the less energetic ones, have been linked to solar magnetic storms, which result in spectacular auroras on Earth.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the probe found the edge of the Earth’s magnetosphere.  “What’s that?” you ask.  Well, our planet is a giant magnet, probably the result of a dense iron core that spins deep inside the Earth.  These magnetic lines of force extend far beyond the Earth’s crust and 70,000 kilometers into space where they trap the wind of high energy particles from our sun.  This keeps them from scouring away our atmosphere. 

Where our magnetic field meets the field carried on the solar wind, called the magnetopause, there is an area of turbulence and disorganized magnetism. It is now believed that the sun’s wind smashes against the Earth’s field, creating a bow shock – the kind you’d see when a blunt body is smacked by a supersonic gas.  Moreover, the Outer Van Belt “breathes” inward and outward, responding to waves in the solar wind.

And speaking of magnetic fields, NASA scientists just released findings from the intentionally short-lived Explorer 10 found a magnetic “shadow” behind the Earth.  Specifically, the solar wind seems to hit our planet’s magnetosphere and deflect around the Earth, but the magnetic field acts as kind of an umbrella, shielding a large portion of near-Earth space. 

The general contours of Earth’s magnetic environment have thus been mapped.  Neat stuff, eh?

[August 31, 1961] Look on the bright side (August space round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

Did you ever eagerly wait for Christmas only to be disappointed by what you found under the tree (or, for my fellow Jews, under the menorah)?  That’s what this month must feel like for fans of the American space program.  While the Soviets achieved a huge success in August with the multiple orbiting of Gherman Titov, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a lousy 31 days.

For one thing, our lunar efforts seem to be cursed.  Ranger 1, launched on August 22, was the first of the third generation of Moon probes.  The flight was a test mission, designed to range high above the Earth but not reach the Moon.  Like the earlier Pioneer missions, Ranger 1 was far from a success.  The second stage of its rocket, the much ballyhooed Agena, hiccoughed.  Instead of going into a high orbit where it could do all sorts of interesting sky science, the satellite ended up in a low orbit that grazed the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not only was the poor probe doomed to a short life as the relatively thick air dragged Ranger 1 down with each circling of the Earth, it couldn’t get enough power, either.  Ranger was designed to bask for hours at a time in the Sun in the slow, high part of its planned orbit.  Instead, the hapless vehicle plunged into shadow every 45 minutes causing it to vent great gouts of nitrogen gas to orient itself toward the sunrise which came three quarters of an hour later.  Ranger quickly ran out of gas, its panels fell out of alignment to receive energy, and soon after, the ship’s batteries gave up the ghost.  When Ranger reentered yesterday, it had been silent for three days.

No science was gathered from the probe.  About the only thing that can be said for Ranger 1 is that its systems worked properly despite the extremely adverse conditions.  Let’s hope Ranger 2, scheduled for October, breaks the bad luck streak.

Meanwhile, Explorer 13, a craft of the S-55 class designed to measure all the dust and rocks whizzing about in orbit, went up on August 24.  Like Ranger, its orbit was lower than planned, and it fell blazing to Earth just four days later.  Not that the lifespan of the “beer can” satellite meant much – not a single impact was recorded on any of the probe’s wide array of sensors.  Again, the NASA boys found a silver lining: now they know to equip the next S-55 with more sensitive detectors!

Even the Air Force has been having a rough time of it.  Their 28th Discoverer spy satellite failed to orbit on August 4.  Discoverer 29 went up yesterday; we’ll see if the flyboys are able to recover their film capsule or not in a few days.

So, was there any good news this month?  Actually, yes!  Remember Explorer 12, which launched two weeks ago?  It has already returned so much data that scientists are overwhelmed.  Explorer will keep broadcasting, but ground stations are only going to listen periodically.  The data already suggests that there is a sharp decline in Earth’s magnetic field 50,000 miles up in the direction of the Sun, as if the two celestial bodies are fighting each other to a standstill out in space.  Explorer 12 will stay up for a year, and the scientific harvest is bound to be a bumper crop. 

In fact, it’s important to remember that there are still a bevy of probes still beep-beeping away, carrying out scientific missions: Tiros 3, Explorer 9, Explorer 11, Echo 1, even the venerable Vanguard 1.  We did lose one of the family recently, however.  Explorer 7 went off the air on August 24 after nearly two years in space. 

But that’s nearly 100 in satellite years, right?

Next up…  the Galaxy!

[August 17, 1961] Voyages of Discovery (Explorer 12)

Every so often, a discovery comes along that shatters our conception of the universe.  Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens and discovered moons around Jupiter – suddenly, it was clear that Earth was not the center of everything.  Roentgen and Curie showed that matter was not entirely stable, leading to our modern understanding of physics (and the challenges that come with the harnessing of atomic energy).  Columbus sailed to find Asia; instead, he was the first to put the Americas on European maps.

Until 1958, space was believed to be a sterile place, a black void in which the planets and stars whirled.  Maybe there was an odd meteoroid or two, and far away, one might find a big cloud of gas, but otherwise space was synonymous with vacuum. 

Then Explorer 1, America’s first space mission, went into orbit around the Earth.  Its particle detectors, designed to measure the free-floating electrons and cosmic rays whizzing around up there, quickly became saturated.  Girdling the planet were hellish streams of energy, particles ionized by the sun and trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. 

Overnight, our idea of space was revolutionized; a few scientists had speculated as to the existence of the “Van Allen Belts,” but the idea was hardly mainstream.  More probes were sent up to determine the nature of these belts.  Pioneer 5 went beyond far into interplanetary space and sent back news of a solar atmosphere that extended far beyond the shiny yellow bits – a field of particles and rays that went beyond even Earth’s orbit.  Other probes returned maps of the turbulent region where the sun’s field met Earth’s. 

Space was hardly empty – it was a new ocean filled with waves, eddies, and unknowns to be explored.

Yesterday, Explorer 12 zoomed into orbit, NASA’s latest voyager to ply the charged sea of space.  While it practically grazes the Earth at its closest point in its orbit, at its furthest, Explorer 12 zooms out a full 50,000 miles – a fifth of the way to the Moon.  Twice every 31 hours, the satellite studies the Van Allen Belts as well as the region of cislunar space, that variable region in which the Earth and the Sun fight for magnetic dominance. 

Armed with a battery of instruments like that carried by its spiritual predecessor, Explorer 6, the new probe also has several strips of solar cells covered with varying levels of shielding.  These will help determine the extent to which the Van Allen Belts will affect ship’s equipment as they travel through the deadly particles.  The data will be of particular use to Apollo astronauts on their way to the Moon.

If Explorer 1 was the satellite Columbus of the Van Allen Belts, and Explorer 6 was John Cabot, then Explorer 12 will be Amerigo Vespucci, fully determining the contours of a new ocean whose depths had been but briefly surveyed before. 

Shiver me timbers, laddie.  It’s an exciting time to be a sailor!

[June 30, 1961] Reaping the Harvest (June 1961 space science results)

June was a busy month for space travel buffs, especially those who live in the Free World.  Here’s an omnibus edition covering all of the missions I caught wind of in the papers or the magazines:

Little lost probe

The Goddess of Love gets to keep her secrets…for now.  The first probe aimed at another planet, the Soviet “Venera,” flew past Venus on May 19.  Unfortunately, the spacecraft developed laryngitis soon after launch and even the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank, England, was unable to clearly hear its signal.

The next favorable launch opportunity (which depends on the relative positions of Earth and Venus) will occur next summer.  Expect both American and Soviet probes to launch then.

X Marks the Spot

Just as planes use fixed radio beacons to determine their position, soon submarines (and people!) will be able to calculate where they are by listening to the doppler whines of whizzing satellites.  Transit 4A, launched by the Navy, joined the still-functioning Transit 2 on June 29 (#3 conked out March 30, and #1’s been off the air since last July). 

This Transit has an all-new power source.  Instead of batteries or solar panels, it gets its juice from little nuclear reactors.  These aren’t aren’t like the big fission plants you see being established all over the country.  Rather, they are powered by the heat of radioactive decay.  These energy packs are small and much simpler than solar panels.  Expect to see them used quite a bit on military satellites.

The Navy gets extra points for making their rocket do triple-duty: Also boosted into orbit were Injun 1 and Solrad 3.  The first is another University of Iowa particle experiment from the folks who discovered the Van Allen Belt; the latter a solar x-ray observatory.

Along a dusty trail

Contrary to popular belief, outer space is not empty.  There are energetic particles, clouds of dust, and little chunks of high-speed matter called micrometeorites.  All of them pose hazards to orbital travel.  Moreover, they offer clues as to the make-up and workings of the solar system. 

Prior satellites have tried to measure just how much dirt swirls around in orbit, but the results have been vague.  For instance, Explorer 8 ran into high-speed clouds of micrometeorites zooming near the Earth late last year corresponding with the annual Leonids meteor shower.  Vanguard 3 encountered the same cloud in ’59, around the same time.  But neither could tell you precisely how many rocks they ran into; nor could previous probes.

NASA’s new “S(atellite)-55” is the first probe dedicated to the investigation of micrometeorites.  It carries five different experiments — a grid of wires to detect when rocks caused short circuits, a battery of gas cells that would depressurize when impacted, acoustic sounding boards…the whole megillah.  It is one of those missions whose purpose is completely clear, accessible to the layman, unarguably useful.

Sadly, the first S-55, launched today from Wallops island, failed to achieve orbit when the third stage of its Scout rocket failed to ignite. 

It’s a shame, but not a particularly noteworthy one.  The Scout is a brand new rocket.  We can expect teething troubles.  Every failure is instructive, and I’ll put good money on the next S-55, scheduled for launch in August.

Worth the Wait

Speaking of Explorer 8, Aviation Week and Space Technology just reported the latest findings from that satellite.  Now, you may be wondering how a probe that went off the air last December could still generate scientific results.  You have to understand that a satellite starts returning data almost immediately, but analysis can take years. 

I’d argue that the papers that get published after a mission are far more exciting than the fiery blast of a rocket.  Your mileage may vary.  In any event, here’s what the eighth Explorer has taught us thus far (and NASA says it’ll be another six months until we process all the information it’s sent!):

1) The ionized clouds that surround a metal satellite as it zooms through orbit effectively double the electrical size of the vehicle.  This makes satellites bigger radar targets (and presumably increases drag).

2) We now know what causes radio blackouts: it is sunspot influence on the lower ionosphere. Solar storms create turbulence that can cut reception.

3) The most common charged element in the ionosphere is oxygen.

4) The temperature of the electrons Explorer ran into was about the same as uncharged ionospheric gas – a whopping 1800 degrees Kelvin.

This may all seem like pretty arcane information, but it tells us not just about conditions above the Earth, but the fundamental behavior of magnetic fields and charged particles on a large scale.  Orbiting a satellite is like renting the biggest laboratory in the universe, creating the opportunity to dramatically expand our knowledge of science.

Air Force discovers Pacific Ocean

The 25th Discoverer satellite, a two-part vehicle designed to return a 300 pound capsule from orbit, was successfully launched June 16.  Its payload was fished from the Pacific Ocean two days later, the recovery plane having failed to catch it in mid-descent.  I recently got to see one of those odd-tailed Fairchild C-119 aircraft that fly those recovery missions; they’re bizarre little planes, for sure. 

As for the contents of the space capsules, it’s generally assumed that they carry snapshots of the Soviet Union taken from orbit.  This time around, however, the flyboys included some interesting experiments: three geiger tubes, some micrometeroid detectors, and a myriad of rare and common metals (presumably to see the effects of radiation upon them). 

You may be wondering what happened to Discoverers 23 and 24 (the last Discoverer on which I’ve reported was numbered 22).  The former, launched on April 8, never dropped its capsule; the latter failed to reach orbit on June 8.  Unlike NASA, the Air Force gives numbers to its failed missions.

Next Mercury shots planned

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom is set to be the next Mercury astronaut in late July.  His flight will be a duplicate of Alan Shepard’s 15 minute jaunt last month.  If all goes well, astronaut John Glenn will fly a similar mission in September.

I don’t think the Atlas is going to be ready in time this year for an orbital shot.  That means there will be several tense months during which the Soviets could upstage us with yet another spectacle. 

[April 28, 1961] Newies but goodies (April space round-up!)

They say “You’re only as old as you feel,” which explains why Asimov pinches co-eds at conventions.

I’ve been asked why someone of my advanced age is into the bop and rock and billy that the kids are into these days, when I should be preferring the likes of Glenn Miller or Caruso.  Truth be told, I do like the music of my youth, the swing of the 30s and the war years (no, I didn’t serve.  I was 4F.  My brother, Lou, was in five Pacific invasions, though.) But there’s something to today’s music, something new.  Lou’s kid, David, really turned me onto this stuff – the Cubano and the Rock n’ Roll.  Music beyond whitebread and Lawrence Welk. 

It makes me feel…young.

I’ve got a full month of space news to catch up, in large part because I was remiss around the end of last month thanks to Wondercon.  And then Gagarin’s flight eclipsed all else in significance for a while, but there is more to off-planet exploration than men in capsules.

Like dogs in capsules.  Gagarin’s flight was preceded by Sputnik 10, launched March 25.  In retrospect, it is clear that it was a test flight of the Vostok spacecraft, and it carried a mannequin cosmonaut and a dog, Zvezdocha (“Little star” – a charming name).  Both passengers returned safely to Earth. 

The fact that Sputnik 9, Sputnik 10, and Vostok 1 all launched in such close succession is a testament to the robustness of the Soviet space program.  It is clear that they have plenty of boosters and capsules to fling into space.  One has to wonder if their second manned space shot will precede our first (currently scheduled for May 4.)

Also launched March 25 was the diminutive and short-lived Explorer 10.  Its brief lifespan was intentional.  The little probe was sent on a eccentric orbit that took it nearly half-way to the Moon.  For just 52 hours, the craft returned data on the magnetic fields in cislunar space, well above the energetic Van Allen Belts.  It may seem a waste to send a satellite up for such a short time, but solar panels are heavy, and the Thor Delta that boosted it can only throw so much into space. 

Some of the results are straightforward — it confirmed the speed and density of solar flare protons.  As for the magnetospheric results, well, their interpretation depends on the answer to one question: did Explorer 10 probe into a realm beyond Earth’s magnetic field (thus measuring the sun’s field) or just its outer reaches? 

Columbus’ first trip returned inconclusive results about the New World; so it will take several more satellites to properly map the high electromagnetic frontier.

Speaking of seeing the unknown, many humans (yours truly included) have some degree of color-blindness.  That is, there are wavelengths of the visual electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot distinguish from others.  For all intents and purposes, those colors don’t exist to us. 

All humans are subject to another kind of color-blindness, one caused by the atmosphere.  You see, while the sky seems perfectly clear to us, at least at night, in fact the air blocks a good many wavelengths of light that we’d be able to detect if it weren’t there.  Not with our eyes, to be sure, but with equipment. 

X-Rays, for instance.  High-flying sounding rockets have found tantalizing evidence that the Sun emits those high energy waves.  Explorer 7’s and Vanguard 3’s X-Ray detectors were swamped by the radiation of the Van Allen Belts.  Solrad, equipped with a magnetic sweeper, was humanity’s first eye in the sky that could see light in that spectrum, though only in a crude fashion, counting the photons as they struck its photocell.  Perhaps the upcoming Orbital Solar Observatory will see more.

Even more elusive are the extremely energetic gamma rays, normally only detected as radiation from natural and artificial nuclear reactions.  Logic would suggest that these rays are emitted by stars, but there is no way to be sure from the ground.

Enter Explorer 11, launched on one of the last Juno II rockets (thankfully, it worked; these neglected boosters have a mere 50/50 chance of success.) It looks to my eye like the early Explorers, which makes sense: the body of the probe is the little Sergeant rocket that makes up the fourth stage of both the Juno I and II.  This little guy is the first satellite that can detect light in the gamma ray end of the spectrum.  Again, it isn’t a camera, but it will detect the number and direction of the rays that hit its sensors.  Who knows just what it will find!

[Feb. 18, 1961] Lost and Found (Explorer 9 and Discoverer 20)

February is definitely making up for January’s relative paucity of space flights; this week, in particular, has been noteworthy. 

I’d held off reporting on NASA’s February 16 launch of Explorer 9 since, well, NASA lost it.  You see, the satellite’s beacon was tracked through half an orbit, but then the signal was lost, and no one could confirm that the thing was still up there.  Yesterday, the vehicle was tracked optically, and it looks as if the probe will be able to fulfill its mission.

‘What mission?’ you ask.  Explorer 9 is a big, polka-dot balloon.  Unlike Echo, whose main purpose is to bounce communications signals across continents, Explorer 9 is an incredibly simple experiment.  By tracking the path of the balloon, scientists can tell a great deal about the air density of the upper atmosphere and the effect of the sun and solar wind thereon.  They will also be able to refine their gravity maps of the world by tracing the satellite’s dips and rises as it travels.  It is the very simplicity of this satellite that allows it to function even without a functioning beacon.  As for the polka-dots, they are designed to help regulate the temperature of the 11-foot wide aluminum/mylar sphere.

Perhaps more exciting than the satellite itself is the rocket that launched it.  It was a cheap, civilian-made, four-stage, solid-fuel rocket called Scout.  The exciting bit is that it’s the first purpose-built booster that isn’t a knock-off of a missile (technically, that honor might go to Vanguard, but it traces its origins to the Viking sounding rocket, itself an evolution of the V2).  It’s cheaper than the military missiles, too.  This launch is actually the second try of the Scout and balloon sat, the first ending in failure during ascent back in December.  The mission also marks the christening of a new orbital launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.  That base has been a sounding rocket pad for a long time, but now it joins Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base as an origin for true spaceflight missions.

In other news, the Air Force launched its twentieth Discoverer yesterday atop a Thor Agena rocket of decidedly military origin.  Once again, the capsule-return probe went into polar orbit, the kind that is best for espying global weather conditions…or enemy army bases.  The flyboys plan to wait an unprecedented four days to recover the capsule, which reportedly contains emulsions for detecting radiation, and probably also for catching a glimpse of Khruschev’s new Model A.  More on that as it crosses my desk.

In the meantime, I’m finishing up this month’s IF, and picked up a recent reprint of A.E.Van Vogt’s The War against the Rull.  We’ll see if I get those reviews done before the next space spectacular.

[February 13, 1961] Venus Plus USSR (Venera)

Look out, Venus!  The Russians are coming to open your shell.

Venus, forever shrouded in a protective layer of clouds, may soon be compelled to give up her secrets to a 1400 pound probe.  Launched by the Soviet Union on the 11th, it is the first mission from Earth specifically designed to investigate “Earth’s Twin.”

The solar-powered ship is armed with a panoply of scientific instruments, from cameras to spectrometers to magnetometers.  It’s also got a cargo of Soviet pennants and medals to deposit on the Venusian surface a la Luna 2.  It will reach the vicinity of Venus in three months; a full report might not be forthcoming until 1962.  That may seem a long while to wait for results, but one should remember that science takes time—even for nearby probes.  For instance, NASA is only just now processing the data from Explorer 8 (launched into Earth orbit last November, it fell silent just after Christmas.)

The Soviet probe (some reports call it ‘Venera’–Russian for Venus) is not the first deep space mission.  That honor goes to the American Pioneer 5).  Venera is the first ship to be launched from an orbital rocket; the Soviets report that they launched a larger vehicle into orbit, and that Venera took off from there.

This is very interesting given last week’s mystery launch, dubbed Sputnik 7.  As you may recall, the USSR launched a seven ton craft into orbit on the 4th, reportedly to do some near Earth space science.  No beep-beeps have been detected from the vehicle (though its presence has been confirmed by Western astronomers), and the Russians have been unusually quiet about the launch.  That usually indicates some kind of failed mission.

Now, my daughter has an interesting theory.  She believes that it is actually a spy satellite, and that the Soviet caginess is a ploy to lull the West into thinking the mission had been a bust. 

On the other hand, the Venera plus rocket plus fuel combination must have weighed far more than three quarters of a ton.  Is it possible that Sputnik 7 was really Venera 0, and the Venus probe never detached from its mothership? 

Maybe the Russians will tell us…in about a hundred years.

[November 4, 1960] Less is More (the launch of Explorer 8!)

Have you ever listened to a pleasant radio broadcast only to have it fade out half-way and wondered what caused the interruption?  Or perhaps you’ve marveled at how, on rare occasions, you can catch programs from faraway countries.

NASA’s about to take some of the mystery out of these phenomena.  Yesterday, the space agency successfully launched number eight in its Explorer series of small science satellites, the first in over a year.  The 41kg probe has a brand-new type of mission, to explore the ionosphere–the upper atmospheric layer where atoms are violently stripped of their electrons by the merciless Sun, thus ionizing them. 

This region has some fascinating properties, most significant of which is its ability to reflect radio waves.  This is why you can pick up shortwave broadcasts from around the globe.  The ionosphere is also a quicksilver place whose ability to relay radio changes by the minute. 

Until today, the ionosphere had only briefly been probed by suborbital sounding rockets or by satellites on their way to orbit on other errands.  Explorer 8 was purpose-built for the task of ionospheric study by Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, NASA’s first established research center.  As Explorer dips low in its eccentric orbit, four of its seven experiments measure the electrical charge on the probe’s surface, the temperature of the electrons around the satellite, the total electrical current rushing over the satellite’s skin, and the concentration of charged particles around the probe.  Two other experiments measure the density of micrometeoric dust, and the final one allows measurement of atmospheric density.  Interestingly, there are no solar panels on Explorer 8, as they would interfere with its ability to take measurements.  We can expect a couple of months of good, battery-fueled data collection, however.

In plain English, Explorer 8 will give us our first true map of a crucially important piece of our atmosphere.  The ionosphere is, essentially, our first sea wall against the ocean of space.  Not only will we better understand radio propagation, we will also be able to quantify atmospheric electricity and analyze the base of our planet’s magnetosphere. The instruments on Explorer 8 will be refined for use in future probes to other planets, letting us study them with similar comprehensiveness. 

It’s great news, but the really exciting bit is that the Explorer 8’s rocket, the Army’s Juno II, worked at all.  The booster was developed by Von Braun’s Huntsville, Alabama team back in 1958 as a competitor to the Air Force’s Thor Able.  When the Army got pushed out of rocket development, the Juno II became an orphan.  As a result, the folks working on it stopped caring so much, and the rocket has since had a lackluster performance record.  At a NASA hearing this summer, there was talk of pulling the plug entirely on the program.  However, it was determined that of the four boosters left (built and paid for), at least two could be expected to work.  Might as well use what you have rather than let them go to waste, I suppose.

That leaves three boosters, of which at least one will probably accomplish its task.  Anyone want to make a bet on which one it will be?

[March 23, 1960] Sergeant goes AWOL! (Explorer S-46 fails)

So far this month, it’s Air Force: 1, Army: 0.  The latest Explorer probe, launched today atop an Army contractor-made Juno II booster failed to orbit.  This is in contrast to Pioneer 5, launched March 11 on an Air Force contractor-built Thor Able, which is still beeping merrily away to the orbit of Venus.  Both launches were made under the auspices of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The failed probe was the 10.2 kilogram “S-46,” and it was another University of Iowa special designed to further investigate those belts of charged particles girdling the Earth.  They’re called “Van Allen” belts after the professor whose team first discovered them back in 1958, and which has produced many of NASA’s satellite experiments to date. 

S-46 was sent toward the heavens by the Juno II, a modified version of the Jupiter missile now being based in Turkey and Italy.  At the Jupiter’s top is the same cluster of Sergeant rockets that, mated with the smaller Redstone rocket, launched America’s first space probe in January 1958.  S-46 was supposed to go into a high, eccentric orbit, similar to that of Explorer 6, to give all of the belts a thorough mapping.

To those wondering why anyone would bother to pull the same stunt twice, the answer is that the environment around the Earth is always changing.  There are terrestrial and solar factors, all of which increase and decrease the magnetic and particlular characteristics of orbital space.  The more data we can collect, the more continuously we can collect it, and the more vantages from which it can be collected, the more complete can by our understanding of geophysics.

Sadly, while the Jupiter first stage performed fine, it looks like one of the Sergeants misfired, which caused the whole second stage to go cock-eyed.  The ill-fated would be Explorer never made to orbit.

I feel badly for the folks at UoI, many of whom have become personal friends.  This Juno II was the last back-up left over from the Army’s lunar Pioneer program (that launched Pioneers 3 and 4).  It looks unlikely that NASA will have another spare booster handy to launch another copy of S-46 for some time, if ever.

This doesn’t mean we’ll never have another Van Allen mapper in orbit.  It just means the fellow after whom they were named may not have first dibs on their next investigation.

Next up: this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction!




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