Written by Samson Reiny
?NASA’s Earth Science News Team
Washington, D.C. – On the evening of Friday, January 31st, 1958, Americans eagerly waited for news as the rocket carrying the Explorer 1 satellite was prepped for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The stakes were high.
Just months earlier, the Soviet Union successfully launched two Sputnik satellites, in October and November 1957. That December, news media were invited to witness the launch of a U.S. satellite on a Navy Vanguard rocket, but it exploded seconds after liftoff. The pressure was on the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s Jupiter-C rocket, the satellite built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the science instruments developed at the University of Iowa to succeed.
On January 31st the moment had come. At 9:48pm CST, Explorer 1 blasted off, hurtling into Earth’s orbit in seven and a half minutes. The next day’s front-page news declared that the United States was now officially in the Space Age.
Explorer 1 showed that the United States was capable of not only launching a satellite but also carrying out scientific research in space. For four months after launch, instruments aboard Explorer 1 measured and sent back data on temperature, micrometeorites and cosmic rays, or high-energy radiation. University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen’s instrument for measuring cosmic rays, a Geiger counter, helped make the first major scientific find of the Space Age: a belt of radiation around Earth that would later be named in Van Allen’s honor.
“Explorer 1 was a beginning. It was the beginning of going beyond our sphere of life out into space,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “At first, quite frankly, space looked like a pretty boring place. But the instrument that Van Allen and his team built showed that space is beautiful.”
On the heels of Explorer 1’s success, the nation entered a new era of discovery on Earth and beyond that continues to this day.
In 1960, NASA launched the world’s first weather satellite, the Television and Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS). The United States now has an extensive fleet of weather satellites operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that monitors storms and other natural disasters and provides critical data that helps save lives and protect critical infrastructure.
In 1972, NASA designed and launched Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1, later renamed Landsat 1, as the first spacecraft designed to monitor the planet’s land masses. Subsequent Landsat satellites, now operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, have produced over four decades of continuous data about our changing planet that have been applied to such uses as crop health monitoring, freshwater and forest management and infectious disease tracking.
NASA has a long history of using the vantage point of space to advance our understanding of our complex home planet. The Nimbus-1 satellite launched in 1964 was the first of seven such spacecraft that revolutionized Earth science. Nimbus satellites measured snow cover at the North and South poles, estimated the size of volcanic eruptions and the distribution of phytoplankton in the oceans and confirmed the existence of the annual ozone hole in Antarctica. NASA’s current fleet of more than a dozen Earth-observing missions continues to provide new insights about Earth’s interconnected systems.
Looking beyond Earth’s horizon, in 1962 NASA launched Mariner 2, the first satellite to encounter another planet as the spacecraft flew within 21,000 miles of Venus and sent back information on not only the Venusian atmosphere but also the solar wind. The space agency has since dispatched satellites to explore every planet in the solar system, in addition to the Sun and a number of moons, comets and asteroids.
NASA has also long set its gaze out into the cosmos. From 1966 to 1972, the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory series of satellites provided the first high-quality ultraviolet observations of stars at the edge of the Milky Way. The space agency has continued its groundbreaking research into the mysteries of the universe with the 2004 launch of the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer, which has imaged the most luminous known galaxies in addition to detecting millions of black holes and dwarf stars.
“Although we have made many amazing discoveries during our first six decades in space, the most exciting part of this journey of exploration is in the future,” Zurbuchen commented.
This summer NASA is launching Parker Solar Probe, which over the next seven years will get closer to the Sun than any satellite before as it travels into the solar corona to explore how heat and energy there move and how solar wind originates and accelerates.
On New Year’s Day 2019 in the frigid outer recesses of the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft is set to buzz by an object in the Kuiper Belt known as 2014 MU69. It will be the most primitive and distant object a spacecraft has ever explored.
Also in 2019, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch to an orbit nearly a million miles away from Earth, where it will explore a wide range of science questions to understand our place in the universe. A successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe.
And Americans will be exploring beyond our home planet as NASA prepares to send astronauts to the Moon in preparation for the next great achievement in space travel: crewed missions deeper into the solar system, including an eventual journey to Mars.
For more information on Explorer 1 and America’s six decades of firsts from space, visit: https://go.nasa.gov/Explorer1
Follow the Explorer 1 conversation on social media with the hashtag #ExploreAsOne.