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Remembering Sputnik 50 Years Later

Three veterans of the early days of spaceflight reflect on the impact a tiny satellite had on the course of history

2 min read

The world’s first artificial satellite took to the sky at 1928 hours GMT on the evening of 4 October 1957. It circled the globe in less than 2 hours. When news of the first spaceflight was broadcast by Radio Moscow shortly afterward, the Earth had become a smaller planet overnight. The first orbit of Sputnik 1 was a shot heard around the world. It changed everything in its path; and like all revolutionary acts, its consequences were profound.

Worldwide, the reaction from the public was astounding. The news media went into paroxysms of speculation. Governments convened emergency sessions. Military services went on high alert. To the nations of the Western Bloc at the height of the Cold War, the 83.6-kilogram metal ball was a shock to the system. Globally, the balance of power had tilted perceptibly. No one knew what would happen next.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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