This episode of the U.S. Army's TV program "The Big Picture" deals with the the first satellite of the United States Explorer 1, launched as part of its participation in the International Geophysical Year. The mission followed the first two satellites the previous year; the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 and 2, beginning the Cold War Space Race between the two nations. Army General John Medaris headed the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which oversaw both JPL and Wernher von Braun’s rocket team in Huntsville, Ala. JPL and the Army teamed up to launch Explorer 1. The Huntsville team provided the first-stage rocket, while JPL built the upper stages and the satellite that carried the science payload. Medaris played a pivotal role in advancing the development of Explorer 1.
Explorer 1 was launched on January 31, 1958 at 22:48 Eastern Time (equal to February 1, 03:48 UTC) atop the first Juno booster from LC-26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, Florida. It was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt, returning data until its batteries were exhausted after nearly four months. It remained in orbit until 1970, and has been followed by more than 90 scientific spacecraft in the Explorer series.
Explorer 1 was given Satellite Catalog Number 4, and the Harvard designation 1958 Alpha 1, the forerunner to the modern International Designator.
To the surprise of mission experts, Explorer 1 changed rotation axis after launch. The elongated body of the spacecraft had been designed to spin about its long (least-inertia) axis but refused to do so, and instead started precessing due to energy dissipation from flexible structural elements. Later it was understood that on general grounds, the body ends up in the spin state that minimizes the kinetic rotational energy for a fixed angular momentum (this being the maximal-inertia axis). This motivated the first further development of the Eulerian theory of rigid body dynamics after nearly 200 years—to address this kind of momentum-preserving energy dissipation.
Sometimes the instrumentation would report the expected cosmic ray count (approximately 30 counts per second) but sometimes it would show a peculiar zero counts per second. The University of Iowa (under Van Allen) noted that all of the zero counts per second reports were from an altitude of 2,000+ km (1,250+ miles) over South America, while passes at 500 km (310 mi) would show the expected level of cosmic rays. Later, after Explorer 3, it was concluded that the original Geiger counter had been overwhelmed ("saturated") by strong radiation coming from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by the Earth's magnetic field. This belt of charged particles is now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The discovery was considered to be one of the outstanding discoveries of the International Geophysical Year.
The acoustic micrometeorite detector detected 145 impacts of cosmic dust in 78,750 seconds. This calculates to an average impact rate of 8.0×10−3 impacts m−2 s−1 over the twelve-day period (29 impacts per hour per square meter).
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