A short history of satellites advancing humanity

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A short history of satellites advancing humanity

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Learning about a short history of satellites enables us to see how far we’ve come in such a small time. 60 years ago we were racing to simply get to space. Now we have started exploring further than our solar system – like Voyager 2 which is currently in interstellar space.

The first satellite

Forty years after the Russian revolution the Russians were preparing a feat no other country had achieved, they were going to win the space race. Almost exactly 63 years ago, at the start of October, they launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1. Sputnik originally meant ‘fellow traveller’ in Russian. Sputnik had five goals. Firstly, to test the method of placing an artificial satellite into Earth orbit. Secondly, to provide information on the density of the atmosphere by calculating its lifetime in orbit. Thirdly, to test radio and optical methods of orbital tracking. Fourthly, to determine the effects of radio wave propagation through the atmosphere. And, finally, to check the principles of pressurization used on the satellites.

Have you ever seen a photo of Sputnik with a scale? It may surprise you to learn that Sputnik was only the size of a beach ball!


The Russian government intended Sputnik to be much larger, around 1400 kg – about the same size as an adult rhino. And, it was meant to have a suite of scientific instruments aboard. But, the Russian government was concerned that the U.S.A would beat them to space if they delayed launch any further. Instead, Sputnik’s famous beep boop pulses told scientists a bit about our atmosphere. Sputnik traveled around beeping and booping for 22 days. After 22 days the lithium battery inside it ran out, and Sputnik simply orbited the Earth for a few months. In January 1958, Sputnik burned up in atmosphere as was planned.

The first satellite image of Earth


61 years ago the Explorer 6 captured the first image of Earth (14 August 1959)

In a truly ‘space race’ fashion, on the 7 August 1959 the US launched the Explorer 6 satellite. Its mission to study Earth’s electrical and magnetic fields, and they added a device for photographing cloud cover.  About a week in the mission it captured the first photograph of Earth while orbiting over Mexico.  The very blurry images show the north Central Pacific Ocean. The images took 40 minutes to transmit to a Hawaii ground station. This short history of satellites enables us to see how much images have improved over the years.

The International Space Station


Fast forward 40 years to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is the largest object humans have ever sent to space. This testament to human technology is a truly international project, individuals from 18 different countries have spent time on the ISS. Astronauts aboard the ISS spend most of their time doing maintenance or experiments, particularly as a testing ground for what happens to human health after a time in space. The ISS is about the size of a football field and weighs >4,700x what Sputnik 1 weighed.

The ISS has enabled some major developments for humanity. For example, the need to recycle every last drop of water on the Space station has led to advanced water filtration and purification systems here on Earth, aiding communities where access to drinking water is lacking. There have also been multiple advances in cancer treatments and eye surgeries because of experiments aboard the ISS. Moreover, space travel can cause loss of density in bones. So, many experiments aboard space vessels are leading the fight against osteoporosis and other diseases that cause bone and muscle loss.

Satellites now

Now over 1300 active satellites are orbiting Earth, and more than 8,000 human-made objects in the skies above Earth. They range from very small CubeSats (about 4 inches) to satellites that weigh over 1,000kg. The satellites are used in a variety of ways, including learning about the land and the environment and improving agricultural processes. Now that we’ve examined a short history of satellites, in a future blog we will explore the history of satellite use in Agriculture, so stay tuned.