Tag Archives: pioneer 5

[June 30, 1960] On a roll! (Space Race Wrap-up)

Something very exciting happened this week: Spaceflight became routine.

Remember just a couple of years ago?  The press was full of flopniks, grapefruit-sized spacecraft, and about a launch every other month.  Every mission was an adventure, and space was the great unknown.

All that has changed.  Not only are we launching more, and more advanced scientific satellites, but we are launching satellite systems.  Only two months ago, the Navy launched the first of the Transit satellites.  These satellites allow a ground-based observer to determine one’s location to a fair degree of accuracy.  But since there’s no guarantee any one satellite will be overhead at a given time, you need a constellation of Transits.

Number two was launched last week on June 22.  The age of reliable space utilization has dawned.

The news gets even more exciting: The launch of Transit also marked the first piggyback mission.  A little scientific probe called Solrad hitched a ride along with the navigation satellite.  How’s that for efficiency?

Solrad is actually quite a neat little device.  For a while, scientists have been trying to study the Sun in the X-Ray spectrum, but the devices carried by Explorer 7 and Vanguard 3 were swamped by the charged particles swirling around the Earth in the so-called Van Allen Belts; thus no useful data was obtained. 

Navy scientists solved this problem in two ways.  First, they put the probe in a lower orbit, avoiding the worst of the Belt radiation.  Second, they employed the simple expedient of placing a large magnet on the front of the detector.  This swept out the unwanted electrons leaving the satellite’s sensors clear for observing the Sun.

Solrad doesn’t take pictures, mind you.  It just measures the raw value of solar X-ray flux.  But already, the probe has contributed significantly to science–in a rather unexpected field. 

Long distance communications on Earth are largely conducted via radio.  Sometimes, signals will fade out for no (hitherto) discernible reason.  Solrad has found out why–the level of solar X-ray emissions directly affects the radio-reflective properties of the Earth’s ionosphere, that upper atmospheric layer of charged particles that causes radio waves to bounce across the planet rather than simply flying off into space.  Thanks to Solrad, and probes like it, I can imagine a time in the near future when we’ll not only have a daily weather report, but also a radio reception report.

Speaking of communications, the Air Force reports that, in about a month, it will be launching a real communications satellite (unlike SCORE which just broadcast a prerecorded message).

It’s not all good news on the Space Front, however.  I present to you the Galactic Journey obituaries for the month of June:

The Air Force has lost yet another Discoverer satellite: Discoverer 12 never made it to orbit; its booster suffered a second stage failure and crashed into the Atlantic.  Better luck next time.

Transit 1 went offline the day before Transit 2 launched.  I don’t know if that was intentional or coincidental.

TIROS 1, the world’s first weather satellite, threw in the towel on June 18, 1960.  It is my understanding that the probe did not perform as reliably as had been hoped, but we should see a TIROS 2 in the near future.

Pioneer 5, the first deep space probe, appears to have passed beyond the range of radio reception.  My sources inform me that the last telemetry was received on June 27.  STL engineers will continue to try to resume contact, however.

Services will be held next Sunday at 12:00 PM.  In attendance will be the currently functioning satellites: Vanguard 1, Explorer 7, Transit 2, and Solrad 1. 

[May 27, 1960] Stalled Flights (Midas 2, Pioneer 5, Ozma, and Eichmann)

There was another mystery Atlas Agena launch from Cape Canaveral on May 24.  My sources tell me it was in the same series as the mission late February that broke up before it could reach orbit.  It appears to be some kind of infrared missile launch detection system.  I even got my hands on some conceptual art, though there’s no way of knowing how accurate it is.  Its project name appears to be MIDAS–I’m guessing this stands for “Missile Infrared Detection Alarm System” or something like that.

I don’t know if the system works or if the satellite performed properly, but I understand “MIDAS 2” did make it into orbit.  With tensions between American and the U.S.S.R. at an all-time high, thanks to the whole spy plane kerfuffle and the break-down of summit peace talks, we need probes like this more than ever.

In civilian space news, a bit of a setback.  Pioneer 5 switched on its big 150 watt transmitter a few weeks ago so that it could be heard from any point in its orbit around the sun, perhaps more than 100 million miles from Earth.  Unfortunately, the 150 watt transmitter is now off-line due to battery deterioration, and Pioneer has gone back to using its little 5 watt transmitter.  This means its voice will soon be too faint to pick up from the smaller Hawaii dish, and the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank in England will only be able to track the probe to a range of about 25 million miles.  Of course, that’s still quite a feat. 

Speaking of Jodrell Bank, remember Dr. Frank Drake’s Project Ozma, the program designed to listen for messages from the stars?  Would you believe that positive results were found within the first week of operation? 

It seems that no sooner did the investigating astronomers turn their antenna to the nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, they received an intense signal.  They listened for a few breathless minutes and then turned the antenna away to confirm that the star was indeed the source.  The signal faded as the antenna moved from the star.  Excitedly, they pointed the antenna at Epsilon Eridani again and waited. 

And waited.  Nothing happened.  Was it just a spurious signal?  Had the aliens gone off the air?

Dr. Drake and his team gave Epsilon Eridani and the frequency on which they had received the signal extra attention for the next week, but to no avail.  Then it came back, but not just from the star–from somewhere close by.  The astronomers confirmed this by poking a little antenna out of their observatory window, not focused anywhere in particular.  They picked up the signal there, too.  So, it was probably just a high-flying airplane that they’d picked up.  So much for easy pickings.

On a more personal note, Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi right-hand man for Himmler, in charge of “solving” the Jewish Question, has been apprehended by the Israeli secret service and will stand trial.  He disappeared from Germany as the Third Reich fell, and has presumably been living it up in some Latin American refuge.  I look forward to justice being served.

Finally, a happy birthday to that skinny, outspoken fan and writer, Harlan Ellison.  He is 26 today!

[May 9, 1960] Long distance call (Pioneer 5 update)

Photo found here
Hold onto your ears, folks, because the Pioneer 5 interplanetary satellite just turned on the big transmitter.

Well, it’s actually only 150 Watts—only a little more powerful than your average light bulb.  But it’s like shouting compared to the 5 Watt radio it was using until now.

Pioneer is now more than 8 million miles away—32 times as far away as the Moon.  It is slowly drifting in toward the Sun on a course that almost parallels that of the Earth.  The plan had been for the spacecraft to intercept the orbit of Venus, but it looks like its initial velocity wasn’t high enough. 

This is not so big a deal, since Venus wasn’t going to be anywhere near the probe at any point, anyway.  What is a big deal are the reams of useful data still streaming in loud and clear from the nearly two-month old spaceship.

When all is said and done, Pioneer 5 is going to revolutionize our understanding of the solar system.  We are taught that space is a vacuum, and that a vacuum has nothing in it.  In fact, there are all kinds of particles and magnetic fields, all of them interacting in exciting and interesting ways.  And we had no way of understanding how these phenomena worked until we sent a probe out into interplanetary space, beyond the influence of the Earth.

For instance, Pioneer acts as a sort of picket, letting us know just how much of the flux of energetic particles on Earth comes from the Sun .  Working together with Explorer VII, which is in Earth orbit, and balloons, which float high in the lower atmosphere, we can get an excellent view of radiation all the way from space to the ground.  It turns out that the sun is constantly bathing the Earth in high energy electrons—not just during solar flares, as had been hypothesized.  It also appears that the level of cosmic radiation from the sun often reaches levels which are hazardous to life forms.

One experiment that never seems to work out is the micrometeoroid detector.  You’d think something so simple, really just a big microphone attached to an electric circuit, would be hard to mess up.  Yet I can’t recall a single STL-built detector that has performed adequately.  Pioneer’s has given squirrelly numbers that clearly indicate a sick experiment. 

On the other hand, the probe is still working, so whatever dust bullets are out there can’t be too dangerous.

Meanwhile, Pioneer’s magnetometer, the most sensitive yet launched, has confirmed the wobbly interface between the Earth and the Sun’s magnetic fields is a good 55,000 or so miles out—twice as far as originally expected.  The turbulence in the region also doesn’t match theory. 

This is why empiricism beats philosophy: you can come up with all the pretty models you like, but you have to test things to find out how the universe actually works!


In other news, it looks like that story about the NASA “weather study” U2 was a pack of lies.  It was, as Khruschev exclaimed with a shark-toothed grin, actually a spy plane caught in the act of spying.  And he has the pilot in custody.

I understand why we have spy planes.  I understand why we had to lie about the spy plane.  I know that the upcoming summit probably wasn’t going to bear much fruit anyway.  It’s still frustrating.


On a pleasanter note, a very happy 40th birthday to William Tenn, the quite excellent British import. 

See you soon with more print and film updates!  I’ve got a lot of material to cover…

[April 25, 1960] Long distance fix (The Repair of Pioneer 5)

Imagine doing brain surgery by remote control.

That’s just what STL engineer, Robert E. Gottfried, did over the weekend, on an ailing deep space probe.

Pioneer 5 blasted off on March 11, and it recently passed the 5 million mile distance mark on its way to the orbit of Venus.  For more than a month, the doughty probe returned an excellent stream of data thanks to its digital brain, Telebit.  This little computer allows the spacecraft to store experimental results and beam them back to Earth at regular intervals.  Thus, observers on the ground get continuous readings of the magnetic, radioactive, and micrometeoroid properties of interplanetary space.

But then some of the data Pioneer was sending back became… strange.  For instance, the spacecraft reported that its battery voltage was too low to send signals—as it was sending signals! 

How do you fix something that’s twenty times as far away as the Moon?  First, you figure out what the problem is.  Luckily, Pioneer’s builders (Space Technology Laboratories in Los Angeles) had the foresight to make a back-up copy of the Telebit hardware.  Gottfried poked and prodded the thing until it started giving him results that matched the ones received from Pioneer’s system.  Through painstaking tracing, the culprit was found—a single faulty or damaged diode, a pinhead-sized component, one of 1500

The result was that there was a consistency to the flawed data that could be compensated for.  Once Gottfried knew what the problem was, he could create a program that would take data from the bad Telebit and translate it into good data.  The digital patch worked.  While we can’t fix Pioneer 5, we can now translate its gibberish into useful science.  For his efforts, NASA’s chief administrator, Keith Glennan, dubbed Gottfried “The Long-Armed Repairman” in a congratulatory telegram.

For the curious, Pioneer 5’s cooling systems maintain its internal temperature at a balmy 50 degrees.  Not bad for being in the vastness space!  The probe is still using its lower power 5-watt transmitter, and is still being received clearly at the giant Jodrell Bank radio telescope in England.  However, the smaller “dish” in Hawaii is already having difficulty picking up the spacecraft, so it is likely that Pioneer will start using its bigger 150-watt transmitter next week.  NASA believes we will be able to communicate with the probe as far out as 50 million miles!

To give you an idea of how amazing this is, think about the stations you pick up on your AM radio.  They broadcast at around 50 thousand watts, and you can only hear them if they are relatively close (one can pick up some fairly distant stations at night, but none are more than a thousand miles or so away.)

Of course, your antenna is probably a telescoping rod or a long wire.  The dish at Jodrell Bank is 250 feet across!  Nevertheless, that it can pick up such an unprecedentedly distant and weak signal is almost miraculous.  I say “almost” because it was not luck that made it happen but good engineering and pioneering digital technology.

Quite a remarkable feat, and worthy, I think, of an article. 

[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!

[March 18, 1960] A million miles from Earth! (Pioneer 5 update #1)

Who calls a press conference at 2:00 in the morning?

And what sort of fool journalist covers a 2 A.M. press conference?

NASA and me, respectively.

Dr. Keith Glennan, NASA’s administrator, admitted that it was an unorthodox time to gather scientists and reporters together, but given the unprecedented nature of the event to be discussed, it’s quite understandable.  After all, never before in the history of humanity has a message been received from an artificial probe 1,000,000 miles from Earth.

Pioneer 5, the interplanetary mission launched last week, is now four times as far from the Earth as the Moon, and its 5 watt transmitter is still being picked up loud and clear.  In a dramatic flourish, just after the conference started, Dr. Glennan ordered the tracking station in Hawaii to query the spacecraft.  The plucky probe responded in a jiffy (discounting the 5-second delay since radio signals travel at the speed of light) to the delight of the audience.

One of the great advancements of Pioneer 5 is its use of digital data.  Earlier probes used analog data, faithfully transcribing experimental results as a steadily varying voltage that would be transmitted, real-time, to Earth.  Not only can digital data be easily stored so complete results can be sent back to Earth at any time, it also requires no “translation” to a language ground-side computers can understand.  This means that data can be analyzed far more rapidly.

In fact, Pioneer 5’s latest space weather report on the cosmic radiation, magnetic field, and micrometeorite situation a million miles out was reduced and presented during the course of the half-hour press conference.  How’s that for instant service?

Pioneer also gave an account of its own health.  NASA’s week-old baby is healthy and happy: its interior remains at a balmy 63 degrees Fahrenheit, its solar-powered batteries are charging nicely, and the transmitter is strong. 

In the weeks to come, Pioneer 5 will remain on the air out to an anticipated distance of 25,000,000 miles.  This flight will challenge NASA’s ability to track and hear the probe to the limits of current technology. 

And, apparently, any notions that I might have a reasonable sleeping schedule!  Not that I’m complaining—it’s an amazing time to be alive.

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[March 11, 1960] Venus (orbit) or Bust! (Pioneer 5)

The Space Race headlines were anything but exciting last month, but today’s news makes up for February’s doldrums in spades.

Last year, there was a great deal of fanfare regarding last August’s launch of Explorer 6.  This testbed of an orbital spacecraft was developed by Los Angeles based Space Technology Laboratories (STL), the Air Force’s pet contractor.  Its purpose was to make use of the experiments designed for the marginally successful lunar Pioneer probes (0-2) and also to test a new digital telemetry system that will allow communication with spacecraft over interplanetary distances.

Explorer 6 was a huge success, and it appeared that a Venusian probe utilizing the technologies pioneered and verified by the paddle-wheel satellite would be launched late last year.  That launch never materialized, probably due to setbacks in the parallel Atlas-Able luar missions, which will use the same technologies in a larger package to explore the Moon. 

Instead, the folks at STL made an interstellar copy of Explorer 6 for a deep space mission past the orbit of Venus without the possibility of a planetary rendezvous. 

Dubbed Pioneer 5, this morning it was successfully launched atop that proven workhorse of prior STL missions, the Thor-Able booster.

Pioneer 5 is now beep-beeping its way through interplanetary space on a journey of unparalleled distance and longevity.  While both the Americans and Soviets have launched probes into solar orbit (Pioneer 4 and Luna 1), these were battery-powered ships whose transmissions faded shortly after whizzing past the moon.

Solar-powered Pioneer 5, with its long-range communications abilities, will relay information about the interplanetary medium up to a distance of 25 million miles away.  That’s 100 times further than the distance from the Earth to the Moon!

Such a long trip can hardly be summed up in a single article, so expect status reports as this intrepid little (100 pound) probe zooms through the vastness between Earth and Venus’ orbits.  For the first time, we will have an in depth analysis of the radiation and magnetic fields beyond terrestrial boundaries.  Moreover, the lessons learned on this mission will be invaluable to future efforts, particularly upcoming flights to Venus and Mars.

Can you tell that I’m excited?  I hope you are too!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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