Today 60 years ago Earth’s first ‘fellow traveller’Sputnik was launched

Kairi Janson | 4.10.2017

Today 60 years ago began the real Space Race of the Cold War: the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit. Two scientists from Tartu Observatory were also indirectly related to Sputnik.

Sputnik 1. NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Scientific Advisor of Tartu Observatory Tõnu Viik remembers the beginning of October 1957 well. He was having his final year of high school and was turning 18 in a few months. “I don’t know where the information about Sputnik came from, but when the brake came, we ran across the street to the national bank (now the Bank of Estonia) and bought a copy of Noorte Hääl (newspaper) from the stall. There was a long and thorough article in semi-bold about Sputnik,” he recalls.

The nuclear arms race of the USA and the Soviet Union had reached its peak: both of the countries had both atomic and hydrogen bombs. But the tools to deliver them were still poor. “Any information about the environment that the rockets had to go through on their way towards the enemy was essential. And it was also beneficial if besides the warriors, scientists got some of that information as well,” Viik said.

Sputnik – Russian for ‘fellow traveller’ – provided a lot of valuable information. Firstly, Sputnik tested the method of placing an artificial satellite into Earth orbit and the principles of pressurization on satellites. Other than that the satellite helped to get information on the density of the atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals in the atmosphere.

Two scientists from Tartu Observatory (then Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Academy of Sciences of the Estonian S. S. R.) were also somewhat involved in the journey of Sputnik. Grigori Kusmin calculated the life expectancy of Sputnik and got three months as an answer – which turned out to be correct.

Viik described that the orbit of Sputnik was highly elliptical with its perigee (the closest approach to Earth) of only 223 km. This indicates that Sputnik slowed down in a perigee where the density of the atmosphere was quite high and the eccentricity of its orbit was reducing step by step. “At the same time the height of the perigee also reduced, until the atmosphere with its still growing density brought down and burnt Sputnik,” Viik said.

The other scientist from the observatory that had a connection with Sputnik was Arved Sapar. He had just started working in the observatory and wrote an article about the mobility equations of Sputnik.

Less than a month after Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 with Laika the dog on board was also launched into space. The Sputniks were quite a backstroke for the USA – until that they had thought they ran the Space Race. “But they quickly pulled themselves together and after 12 years, they sent a man on the Moon. The so-called Soviet people haven’t reached that.”