A European Symphonie and the Health of Our Planet

Thirty-five years ago today — December 18, 1974 — the first European-built communications satellite was launched aboard a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral. Symphonie-1 was a cooperative French-German spacecraft, as detailed on this Wikipedia page. (Note that the page lists the launch as December 19th because it’s based on UTC — what used to be known as Greenwich Mean Time — but it was still the 18th on the East Coast of the US.)

And 10 years ago today, an Atlas-2AS rocket launched Terra, a joint US-Japanese-Canadian weather satellite, from Vandenberg AFB.

(Terra launch. NASA image.)

Terra was “the first of a series of large satellites meant to monitor the health of our planet” by monitoring cloud formation, radiation balances, and aerosols in the atmosphere. As the NASA web site puts it, “Terra’s primary mission is to answer the question: How is the Earth changing and what are the consequences of change for life on Earth?”

This page shows some interesting comparative images taken by Terra.

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Four Launches: Scout, Thor-Delta, Atlas-Centaur, Titan

This day in space history, November 21, was a busy day for launches. They were launched at five-year intervals, but still …

Today in 1964 — 45 years ago — NASA launched its first dual payload when it sent up Explorer-24 and Explorer-25 on a Scout rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

(A Scout vehicle launch from 1967. National Air & Space Museum image.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the United Kingdom sent up its first communications satellite. Skynet-1 launched on a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral.

On November 21, 1974 — 35 years ago — an Atlas-Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the Intelsat IV F-8 communications satellite.

And 30 years ago today, in 1979, a Titan-IIIC rocket out of Cape Canaveral sent up two Defense Satellite Communication System satellites, DSCS II-13 and DSCS II-14.

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that 40 years ago today the U.S. also had astronauts returning from the moon. Mission Commander Charles Conrad, Jr., Command Module pilot Richard F. Gordon, and Lunar Module pilot Alan L. Bean made their transearth injection at 3:49 p.m. EST on November 21st, 1969.

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Searching the Cosmos for Background Radiation

Twenty Years Ago — November 18, 1989 — the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE, was launched atop a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Here’s the 20th anniversary press release.

(Artist’s depiction of the COBE spacecraft. NASA image.)

And here’s a link to another nice artist’s conception of the spacecraft.

COBE was designed to measure the microwave background radiation left from the early universe. COBE carried three instruments:

  • Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE), to search for infrared background radiation
  • Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR), to map the cosmic radiation
  • Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS), to compare the background radiation to a known standard

The astrophysics behind it are beyond me, but I like the pretty pictures.

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In the Old Days, Everyone Was a Rocket Scientist

Our first space history item is interesting, but not the main event: On October 1, 1949 — 60 years ago today — the Long Range Proving Ground was activated at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It became the Florida Missile Test Range, and eventually Patrick Air Force Base and the Kennedy Space Center.

But the event that elicited this post’s subject line happened 40 years ago today, in 1969, when the European satellite “ESRO-1B” was launched from Vandenberg AFB by a Scout rocket. The NASA press release for the launch is very interesting: it includes pages of background information that must have fed the interest and imagination of every would-be “steely-eyed missile man” in the general public.

I had to grab the press release from the Google cache because the NASA link was broken, and I’ll only copy a few paragraphs here:

September 28, 1969
RELEASE NO: 69-138

A 176-pound satellite carrying eight experiments to study the polar ionosphere, the Northern Lights and related phenomena, is scheduled to be launched by a four-stage Scout rocket from the Western Test Range, Calif., no earlier than Oct. 1, 1969. Called ESRO-1B, the European designed and built satellite is the fourth in a cooperative program between the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The program is carried out under terms of an agreement signed by the two organizations in December 1966, relating to providing ESRO with launching and associated services.

ESRO-1B is a duplicate or backup version of ESRO 1-Aurorae, a cooperative ESRO/NASA project, which was successfully launched into a highly elliptical near polar orbit by NASA on October 3, 1968, and is still operating. The same complement of eight experiments–a series of high-latitude particle detectors, auroral photometers, and Langrnuir probes–is being carried on board ESRO-1B. The experiments were provided by the Technical University of Denmark; Kiruna Geophysical Observatory, Sweden; the Radio and Space Research Station, Slough, England; the University of Oslo, Norway; the University of Bergen, Norway; the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment; and the University College, London, England.

The orbit planned for ESRO-1B is near-polar, inclined 86 degrees to the Equator, with an apogee of 435 kilometers (about 270 statute miles) and a perigee of 400 kilometers (about 248 statute miles). Orbit period will be 92 minutes. Scientific measurements made by the ESRO-1B will be concentrated over Northern Europe to enable correlation between ground-based polar ionosphere observations and measurements made simultaneously with sounding rockets launched from the ESRO launch site at Kiruna, Sweden.

Once injected into orbit, the ESRO-1B will be despun by means of a yo-yo system to about 1 RPM. Final stabilization will occur about 10 days after launch when the spacecraft locks onto the Earth’s magnetic field. This stabilization is achieved by means of a pair of magnets inside the satellite. To minimize oscillations, slender magnetic rods are also mounted inside the satellite.

And so on. On page 10 of the news release:


Launch Window: 30-minute window which changes only slightly from day to day. The window opens at 3:29 p.m., (PDT), October 1, 1969.
Launch Site: Western Test Range, Lompoc, California, Pad SLC-5.
Launch Vehicle: Four-stage solid fuel Scout rocket.

Apogee: 435 km (about 270 statute miles)
Perigee: 400 km (about 248 statute miles)
Period: 92 minutes
Inclination: 86 degrees
Stabilization: Spacecraft is spin stabilized at about 148 rpm initially. Despun to one rpm by yo-yo mechanism and further despun by magnetic system which interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Stabilization thereafter will be provided by a passive system consisting of two permanent magnets.

I find the inclusion of all the detail fascinating. But maybe that’s understandable, since I still am a would-be rocket scientist.

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A Space Anniversary for the Cold Warriors

Forty-five years ago today — September 24, 1964 — a Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile launched for the first time on a test flight from Cape Canaveral.

(Blast door at the entrance to Launch Control Center Delta-01. Image from the National Park Service.)

Hats off to all my missileer friends whose alert posture kept us safe during the Cold War and beyond — and deter nuclear aggression today. It was an honor to serve with you, even if my part was just to put together emergency action messages.

If you’re planning to visit South Dakota, you might consider adding the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site to your travel itinerary.

And 10 years ago today, in 1999, an Athena rocket launched the Ikonos-2 remote sensing satellite from Vandenberg AFB. Ikonos-2 was a non-military reconnaissance satellite, and the first of a “new generation” of high-resolution (1 meter) commercial imagers.

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Nimbus-1 Weather Satellite: From Launch to STAR TREK

Forty-five years ago today — August 28, 1964 — the Nimbus-1 satellite, “the first in a series of second-generation meteorological research-and-development satellites,” launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor-Agena rocket.

(Nimbus Satellite Diagram, from www.ucsb.edu)

According to the National Space Science Data Center,

a short second-stage burn resulted in an unplanned eccentric orbit. Otherwise, the spacecraft and its experiments operated successfully until September 22, 1964. The solar paddles became locked in position, resulting in inadequate electrical power to continue operations.

Nevertheless, Nimbus-1 produced the first nighttime cloud-cover images from space and was followed by six more satellites in the Nimbus series.

So where does STAR TREK come in? According to Memory Alpha, a diagram of Nimbus-1 in its polar orbit was part of the data accessed by the Talosians when they scanned the Enterprise‘s data banks in the original pilot episode “The Cage.”

Science fact meets science fiction … I like it.

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Space History and Space Today: Launching Remote Sensing Spacecraft

Five years ago today — July 15, 2004 — NASA’s Aura spacecraft launched on a Delta-2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Aura carries sensors designed to study atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, e.g., changes in ozone. You can learn more about the Aura mission at this NASA page, and also at this NASA (Goddard Space Flight Center) page.

(Aura spacecraft in the high-bay. Note the spreader bar at the top and, for scale, the people at the bottom. NASA photo from the Aura spacecraft gallery.)

Speaking of launches, congratulations to the SpaceX team for successfully launching their Falcon-1 booster on its first commercial mission yesterday. They put a Malaysian remote imaging satellite into orbit, and from all accounts did a good job of it. Here’s the Spaceflight Now story about the launch.

And speaking of launches, today is the eve of a very special space anniversary … which we of course plan to cover in a blog entry tomorrow.

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Space History: a Polar Explorer

(Explorer-52, or “Hawkeye-1”. Public domain image from Wikimedia.)

Thirty-five years ago today — June 3, 1974 — Explorer-52 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard a Scout rocket. Built by the University of Iowa, the satellite was also known as Hawkeye-1.

According to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center Master Catalog,

The primary mission objective was to conduct particles and fields investigations of the polar magnetosphere of the earth out to 21 earth radii. Secondary objectives were to make magnetic field and plasma distribution measurements in the solar wind, and to study Type-3 radio emissions caused by solar electron streams in the interplanetary medium.

And now you know.

Since the satellite was launched into a polar orbit, I have to believe the Thule Tracking Station — callsign POGO, which I commanded for one year of my Air Force career — downlinked at least some of the data from it. That was many years later than this launch, of course, so it’s not much of a connection … but I’ll take what I can get.

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A Lifting Body and a 'Misty' Launch

Two space history anniversaries today:

Forty years ago today — May 9, 1969 — John A. Manke flew the HL-10 lifting body in its first supersonic flight at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.

(HL-10 on the Edwards AFB lakebed, with B-52 flyover. NASA photo ECN-2203. Click to enlarge.)

And fifteen years ago — May 9, 1994 — a Scout rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying the second Miniature Sensor Technology Integration spacecraft: MSTI-2, pronounced “Misty-two.” I was stationed at Vandy at the time, though I confess I don’t remember that particular launch.

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Gravity Probe-B Launch Anniversary, Plus Two Launches

Five years ago today — April 20, 2004 — NASA’s Gravity Probe-B spacecraft was launched by a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg AFB. The mission carried four gyroscopes that were

the most perfect spheres ever made by humans. If these ping pong-sized balls of fused quartz and silicon were the size of the Earth, the elevation of the entire surface would vary by no more than 12 feet.

according to this NASA page. The mission was designed to test Einstein’s theory of space-time, and especially the effects of a rotating mass like the Earth on space-time. It collected date for 17 months, but solar flares and other glitches corrupted some of the data according to this report.

In more recent launch news, the Indians launched an Israeli-built spy satellite and Sea Launch launched a military communications satellite for Italy.

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