Sputnik at 60

Sixty years ago, this beeping metal sphere amazed the world, embarrassed the United States, and accelerated technological competition beyond all precedent

3 min read
Illustratio by: Stuart Bradford
Illustration: Stuart Bradford

Sixty years ago, on Friday, 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Technically, it was a modest affair, a sphere 58 centimeters in diameter weighing almost 84 kilograms and sprouting four rodlike aerials. Although its three silver-zinc batteries made up some 60 percent of the total mass, they rated only 1 watt, good enough to broadcast rapid shrill beeps at 20.007 and 40.002 megahertz for three weeks. The satellite circled the planet 1,440 times before plunging to a fiery death on 4 January 1958.

Sputnik should have come as no surprise. Both the Soviets and the United States had revealed their intent to launch orbiting satellites during the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), and the Soviets had even published some technical details before the launch. In retrospect, it’s fair to call Sputnik just the inevitable first act in a long-running show. But that was not how the public perceived the little beeping sphere in late 1957.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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