On March 17, 1958, the United States launched the first of the Vanguard series of satellites appropriately named the “Vanguard 1.”  Project Vanguard was created to test the launch capabilities of a three-stage launch vehicle as well as the effects of the environment on a satellite and its systems in earth orbit.

The Beginning of Man-made Satellites

In the late 1800s and early into the 1900s various authors and scientists began writing about the potential use and possibility of launching a man-made satellite into orbit around the earth.  Then in the 1950s the race was on between the Soviet Union and the United States as military, political, and scientific leaders began to see the benefit of owning the “high ground” to communicate and observe changing events quickly and use this information to counter the enemy.

The first artificial satellite launched into earth’s orbit was Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957 by the Soviet Union, after which the United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN) was established with the mission of tracking objects in earth orbit.  Since that time thousands of satellites have been launched by more then 50 countries around the globe.  Several hundred of these satellites are still functional with the remainder simply being space debris.

Vanguard 1 Today

Although communications were lost to the satellite in 1964, Vanguard 1 continues to orbit the earth and is the oldest man-made satellite still in orbit.  Vanguard 1 weighs approximately 3.2 lbs and makes one orbit every 134.2 minutes.  It is 6.4 inches in diameter and contains a 10mW, 108 MHz battery powered transmitter, and a 108.03 MHz solar powered transmitter.  Six short antennas protrude from the satellite.

The data collected from Vanguard 1’s transmitters was used primarily for tracking the satellite’s orbit, and determining electron content between the satellite and the ground tracking stations.  The tracking data showed that earth has a north/south asymmetry that could be described as pear-shaped with the stem coming out the North Pole.  Vanguard 1 also contained two temperature sensing devices which were used to track internal satellite temperatures and evaluate the effectiveness of the satellite’s thermal protection over 16 days.  The mission resulted in the collection of data that was used to calculate functions for atmospheric drag based on altitude, latitude, season, and solar activity.

The first of its kind to be solar powered, the Vanguard 1 has completed a little over 200,000 orbits since first being launched and has an estimated orbital lifetime of 240 years.

Further Investigation

Launch of Vanguard 1
(You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)

Vanguard 1
Background from NASA.

Sputnik: The New York Times Looks Back
Interesting look at the satellite that started it all.

First US Attempt – Vanguard
The first attempt at launching the Vanguard 1 satellite was a failure.

What is a Satellite
Explanation from NASA.

How Do Satellites Work
From the FCC.

Orbits ‘R’ Us
Simple explanation for kids from NASA.

An Early History of Satellites
Great infographic timeline from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories!


Real Time Satellite Tracking: Vanguard 1
You can track the Vanguard 1 satellite using this site.

World Map of Live Satellite Positions
You can also track all of the satellites in the world!

Satellite Anatomy
Interactive from the Lockheed Martin Tech Museum showing what makes a satellite work.

TOPEX/Poseidon Kids Page
Provides a tour of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite launched in 1992 to map ocean surface topography.

Projectile Motion 2.03
To launch a satellite into orbit, the spacecraft must be placed on a certain trajectory. Practice projectile launching at this fun, but educational site from the University of Colorado..

Build Your Own Satellite
The edible option is preferred! From NASA.

Moving  Satellite
Lego project!


Pioneer Saturn Encounter
NASA publication that brings the program forward:

Other spacecraft are following along the trail blazed by Pioneer Saturn. Voyager 1 passed by Jupiter in March 1979 and will reach Saturn in November 1980. Voyager 2 has also passed beyond Jupiter and will encounter Saturn in August 1981, with the further possibility of traveling on to Uranus (a 1986 encounter).

Lesson Plans

Extensive lesson plan from Boston University.

Where Am I: Navigation and Satellites
Lesson plan at TeachEngineering.org.

Notebooking Pages

Satellite Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, and wrapping up.

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