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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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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