Tag Archives: tiros

[March 7, 1962] Sunny side up!  (Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) #1)


by Gideon Marcus

Look up at the night sky, and what do you see?  Darkness and countless points of light.  Maybe a planet or two, brightly untwinkling in the black.  It is interesting that the sky should be black – after all, there are lots of photons (light particles) buzzing around the sky even after the sun has gone down.  You’ve got radio waves and x-rays.  Gamma rays, microwaves, and the shimmering veil of infrared – heat.  And yet, we can’t see any of it.  Just the pinpricks of stars on the night’s sheet.

Part of that is a biological limitation.  Our eyes only see a tiny window of the electromagnetic spectrum: from purple to red, the colors of the rainbow.  Some species of life see a bit further, into the ultraviolet or the infrared.  Only one species has crafted the ability to see beyond this range: humanity.  With our scintillators and geiger tubes and giant dishes, we can see waves of all kinds. 

Well, not quite.  You see, even with these detectors, we are still half blind.  The blanket of air covering the Earth blocks many wavelengths of photons from outer space: X Rays, Cosmic Rays, many wavelengths of Ultraviolet.  To see the truly unseeable, you have to go into orbit.

That’s when we really can look at those points of light.  These are the stars, those busy factories of nuclear fusion, busily turning hydrogen into helium.  There are 100 billion in our galaxy, alone!  And we happen to have a lovely example just 93 million miles away, orders of magnitude closer than Alpha Centauri, the second nearest system.  While we have been observing the sun with our eyes for thousands of years, and with instruments for several hundred, these observations have always been hampered by the screening interference of the atmosphere.

Enter OSO – the Orbital Solar Observatory.  This 200kg spacecraft is the heaviest American science satellite to date, dwarfing all of the Explorer series of probes.  It is the first satellite launched devoted to the long-term study of the sun, in wavelengths you can’t see from the Earth’s surface.

There are 13 experiments on board the (appropriately) solar-powered craft including three X-Ray detectors, four Gamma Ray monitors, an ultraviolet sensor, several particle counters, and a dust sampler.  Not only will OSO be up in orbit for months, but it will be joined by successors in the series such that, for the next 11 years (a complete solar cycle of sunspot maximums and minimums), we will have continuous measurements of our star.  It is an unprecedented experiment, one which will tell us much about the nearest star and, by extension, the rest of the Galaxy’s stars.

Not only that, but we will learn a great deal about solar storms and the hazards of radiation to human spaceflight.  This will give us a better idea of when and for how long it is safe for astronauts to travel in space, on the way to the Moon, for instance (NASA Director, James Webb, says he expects a landing by 1968!)

When will this ambitious project start?  Why…today, March 7, 1962, in fact!  It was launched from Cape Canaveral this morning, and to all indications, it is working flawlessly.  It is the kind of mission that won’t get a lot of press, particularly when compared to the glory that cloaked Glenn’s manned Mercury mission last month.  Nevertheless, I think OSO deserves attention and praise.  It constitutes a genuine leap in technology and it extends the eye of our race far above the clouds in a way no previous satellite has done. 

If they gave out Hugos for unmanned probes, this one would get my vote!

On the other hand, OSO-1 has plenty of competition for that award, and it’s sure to get much more.  Tiros 4, the fourth weather satellite, joined its still-functioning older brother (#3) last month on the 8th, and there have been a few mystery military launches since then.  The President has clamped down on Air Force flights as of the beginning of the year, so I don’t know much about them save that two were Discoverer film-based spy sats and one was a Samos live-TV spysat.  Another launch happened just today, but it was classified, and I know nothing else about it.  (It’s ironic that the reason for the information clamp-down is that the Soviets accused us of employing surveillance satellites, and we’re trying to hide it; I’m afraid the cat’s already out of that bag!)

So stay tuned…there’s more yet to come!

[July 12, 1961] Reaction time (The launches of MIDAS 3 and TIROS 3)

My brother, Lou, used to tell me that the only way to beat a bully is to not fight fair.  Jump the guy when he’s not looking, and fight like there are no rules.  That’ll teach him that you’re nuts and not worth messing with.

He learned this lesson honestly.  When Lou was in the navy, he immediately got flak for being Jewish.  Someone tried to steal his bunk; Lou rammed the guy’s head into the wall.  After that, whenever someone tried to take advantage of Lou, by cutting in the chow line, for instance, another sailor would restrain the miscreant.  “Don’t do it!  That’s Marcus.  He’s crazy.  He’ll kill you!”

The problem is that these days, there are just two kids on the block: The USA and the USSR.  Each one’s the bully in the other’s eyes.  If the Russians decide they can get in a sucker punch, they just might do it to get us out of the way, once and for all.

We have the same option, of course, but it is the avowed intention of our leaders that America will never start a nuclear war.  The Soviets have not made such a pledge.

That’s why we have invested so much time and money in developing a strategic nuclear force.  We want the Russians to know that we can strike back if they launch an attack, so that any attempt at a preemptive blow would be an act of suicide.

But we can’t retaliate if the first indication we have a Soviet attack is the sprouting of atomic mushrooms over our cities and missile fields.

To that end, we recently finished the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, a string of radar installations along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada.  These can detect a missile some ten minutes from target.  Still not a very good window of time in which to order a counter-strike.

Enter MIDAS.  The MIssile Defense Alarm System satellite has infrared sensors.  As it flies over the Soviet Union, it will be able to detect the heat off a rising ICBM (or space shot, presumably).  Operated in a constellation of low-orbiting craft, there will always be one or two whizzing over the vast expanse of our enemy superpower.  This will raise the window of decision to a more-comfortable 30 minutes.

That should give the Soviet Union pause.  If they can’t wind up a punch without us seeing and countering, maybe they won’t wind up at all.

I’ve written about MIDAS before.  The difference this time is that the launch of MIDAS 3 today was freely covered in the press, and it looks like this may have been the first operational vehicle in the series.  In any event, it’s one more use of space that benefits all of humanity…hopefully.

In a similar, if more benign vein, today NASA got up the third in its TIROS weather satellite series.  It replaces TIROS 2, which went off the air in January.  TIROS 3 is an improvement on its predecessors, incorporating two wide-angle cameras (the narrow-angle cameras having been eliminated as not particularly useful) as well as five infrared sensors to measure the Earth’s heat budget.  I cannot stress enough how revolutionary the TIROS series has been.  Not only has it provided the first full pictures of large-scale weather patterns, but we’re getting global climatological data, too.  In concert with the super-powerful computers now at our disposal, meteorology has entered a new age.

For those who live in the Gulf area or Florida, TIROS 3 will be of particular interest: it will be spotting those pesky hurricanes long before they hit the shore.  Again, outer space provides a valuable window of decision for folks on the ground…in this case, the decision whether or not to evacuate!

See you in two with the rest of the latest Analog!

[Nov. 30, 1960] Back and Forth (a p/review)

November is done, and the first chill of winter is upon us (for the rest of you, that happened about a month ago—we San Diegans are a happy lot).  As we head into the Christmas shopping season, it’s good to take a moment to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.  Then we can dive into 24 commercially hectic days.

November Review

After months of hard campaigning, we have a new president.  The mantle has been returned to the Democrats, who had it for so long before 1952 that Eisenhower seems like a small splice in the tape.  He was practically a compromise candidate anyway—perhaps the Republican party, as we know it, is dead.  Or maybe there’s a new movement on the horizon, one that will surprise us. 

There was just one new book out this month, Store of Infinity by Robert Sheckley, and it was his best yet.  You definitely want to get yourself a copy.

On the magazine front, Analog took the prize for the first time since the July issue.  It garnered a solid 3.5 rating, a score it last secured in March.  Galaxy was in the middle of the pack, earning a decent 3 stars.  F&SF, made up of the turgid Rogue Moon and a mixed bag of vignettes barely merited 2.5 stars, a depth to which the normally fine magazine has never sunk (since I started charting it, anyway).  Well, there has to be a first time for anything.  Hopefully there won’t be a second!

It was tough selecting a favorite story for this month; both R. A. Lafferty’s Snuffles and Poul Anderson’s The Long Voyage were quite good.  In the end, I gave the nod to the former, which came out in Galaxy because I felt it was more memorable and unusual.

Finally, out of 22 fiction pieces, only two were written by women.  9% is about par for the course.  Perhaps 1961 will be better.

December Preview

Coming soon, I’ll be reviewing the next four episodes of The Twilight Zone–it’s gotten better recently.  There are no new movies on the horizon but I did received an advance copy of a new book, Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid, from the publisher in the mail this week.  I’ve been enjoying it thus far. 

Of course, there will be the Big Three: the January 1961 issues of F&SF, Analog, and IF (Galaxy and IF alternate months).  I’m sure there will also be some noteworthy space shots, too—the Mercury Redstone unmanned mission will likely be tried again, and there’s one last Atlas Able moon shot planned.  Fingers and toes crossed!

Speaking of space shots, NASA got up another weather satellite, TIROS 2, on November 23.  I didn’t mention it at the time for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t figure out how to work it in, thematically, and 2) whether or not it had been a success wasn’t known until the next day.  When the probe went up, it was initially pointed in the wrong direction, so all the Weather Bureau got was a lens full of blackness.  TIROS is now properly oriented, but it turns out there is some fuzz on the wide-angle camera blurring its pictures.  The other equipment, including a narrow-angle camera and sensors to measure Earth’s heat budget (solar input vs. planetary heat radiation), seem to be working fine, however.  If this new satellite can last until TIROS 3 goes up next Summer, we’ll have continuous weather pictures from outer space for the foreseeable future.  That’ll be exciting!

[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. 

[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!

[April 2, 1960] Aeolus Chained (TIROS 1)

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”  Mark Twain

That sage 19th century observation may not hold much longer if NASA has anything to say about it.

Last year, Vanguard 2 was touted as the first weather satellite because it had a pair of photocells designed to measure the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth.  This way, scientists could quantify the sun’s effects on our climate.  No useful data was obtained, however, since the probe quickly became a whirling dervish.  Explorer 7 has a sophisticated radiometer experiment, which is more successfully accomplishing the same mission.

But it was not until yesterday that humanity had an honest-to-goodness weather shutterbug in orbit snapping pictures of clouds from hundreds of miles above them. 

The spacecraft is called TIROS: Television InfraRed Observation Satellite.  Every 90 minutes, TIROS makes a complete circuit of the Earth, with most of the inhabited surface visible to its twin TV cameras.  TIROS’ photos are facsimiled to NASA headquarters (normally—I understand that the very first photos were conveyed via helicopter from the tracking station at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey).  They can then be distributed to scientists, weathermen, reporters, the general public.


TIROS’ first picture—compare it to the “photo” returned by Explorer 6!

TIROS is going to usher in a new era of meteorology.  Weathermen will make accurate predictions days in advance.  Hurricane courses will be mapped, saving lives and property.  The President won’t be rained out on golfing days. 

Perhaps more importantly, TIROS proves once and for all the practical value of satellites.  This isn’t some eggheaded application too esoteric for the public to understand.  Nor is it just jingoistic one-upsmanship.  When someone asks you why we bother sending craft into space, you can point to TIROS’ picture, the likes of which will soon replace the crude line drawings we currently find in our newspapers.

On a side note, TIROS marks the first homegrown NASA probe.  All of the previous Pioneers and Explorers were made by outside contractors (like Space Technology Laboratories) or absorbed facilities (like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory).  TIROS was made by NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland, which first started operation in June 1959.  I’d say they’ve earned an “A” right out of the gate!

Speaking of reports, we’re at a science fiction convention in Los Angeles this weekend.  I’ll try to have a wrap-up soon after the photos are developed.  During the con’s down-time, should there be any, I plan to finish Edmond Hamilton’s recently released The Haunted Stars while lounging in a chair by the hotel pool.  It’s anyone’s guess whether the convention or the book will get an article first…




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