Spacecraft above Earth.

Artist's concept of Explorer 1 in orbit.

1. The Original Science Robot

Sixty years ago this week, the United States sent its first satellite into space on Jan. 31, 1958. The spacecraft, small enough to be held triumphantly overhead, orbited Earth from as far as 1,594 miles (2,565 km) above and made the first scientific discovery in space. It was called, appropriately, Explorer 1.

2. Why It’s Important

Man with spacecraft
Engineer with the Soviet Union's Sputnik spacecraft.

The world had changed three months before Explorer 1’s launch, when the Soviet Union lofted Sputnik into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957. That satellite was followed a month later by a second Sputnik spacecraft. All of the missions were inspired when an international council of scientists called for satellites to be placed in Earth orbit in the pursuit of science. The Space Age was on.

3. It … Wasn’t Easy

Animated GIF of rocket exploding on the pad.
The U.S. Navy's test of the Vanguard rocket, along with its satellite payload, toppled over on the launch pad and exploded after its malfunctioning first stage caused vehicle to lose thrust after two seconds. Image Credit: U.S. Navy

When Explorer 1 launched, NASA didn’t yet exist. It was a project of the U.S. Army and was built by Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. After the Sputnik launch, the Army, Navy and Air Force were tasked by President Eisenhower with getting a satellite into orbit within 90 days. The Navy’s Vanguard Rocket, the first choice, exploded on the launch pad Dec. 6, 1957.

4. The People Behind Explorer 1

Three smiling men holding up a spacecraft model.
A model of Explorer 1 is held high by (left to right) JPL Director William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun at a late-night news conference announcing the launch of Explorer 1, held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, whose proposal was chosen for the Vanguard satellite, had made sure his scientific instrument – a cosmic ray detector – would fit either launch vehicle. Wernher von Braun, working with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Alabama, directed the design of the Redstone Jupiter-C launch rocket, while JPL Director William Pickering oversaw the design of Explorer 1 and other upper stages of the rocket. JPL was also responsible for sending and receiving communications from the spacecraft.

5. All About the Science

Illustration of spacecraft.
A diagram of Explorer 1 Instruments.

Explorer 1’s science payload took up 37.25 inches (95 cm) of the satellite’s total 80.75 inches (2.05 meters). The main instruments were a cosmic-ray detector; internal, external and nose-cone temperature sensors; a micrometeorite impact microphone; a ring of micrometeorite erosion gauges; and two transmitters. There were two antennas in the body of the satellite and its four flexible whips formed a turnstile antenna that extended with the rotation of the satellite. Electrical power was provided by batteries that made up 40 percent of the total payload weight.

6. At the Center of a Space Doughnut

Animated illustration of the Van Allen Belts
Artist's concept of the Van Allen Radiation Belt.

The first scientific discovery in space came from Explorer 1. Earth is surrounded by radiation belts of electrons and charged particles, some of them moving at nearly the speed of light, about 186,000 miles (299,000 km) per second. The two belts are shaped like giant doughnuts with Earth at the center. Data from Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 (launched March 26, 1958) led to the discovery of the inner radiation belt, while Pioneer 3 (Dec. 6, 1958) and Explorer IV (July 26, 1958) provided additional data, leading to the discovery of the outer radiation belt. The radiation belts can be hazardous for spacecraft, but they also protect the planet from harmful particles and energy from the Sun.

Today, these belts are known as the Van Allen Belts; two NASA spacecraft, the Van Allen Probes, have been exploring this region since 2012.

7. 58,376 Orbits

Animation of spacecraft orbiting Earth
Explorer 1 was the first step in exploring Earth and beyond from space.

Explorer 1’s last transmission was received May 21, 1958. The spacecraft re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up on March 31, 1970, after 58,376 orbits. From 1958 on, more than 100 spacecraft would fall under the Explorer designation.

8. Find Out More!

Illustration of Explorer 1 over the word Go!
Official Explorer 1 anniversary poster.

Want to know more about Explorer 1? Check out the website and download the poster celebrating 60 years of space science. go.nasa.gov/Explorer1

9. Hold the Spacecraft In Your Hands

Create your own iconic Explorer 1 photo (or re-create the original), with our Spacecraft 3D app. Follow @NASAEarth this week to see how we #ExploreAsOne. https://go.nasa.gov/2BmSCWi

10. What’s Next?

All NASA missions can trace a lineage to Explorer 1. This year alone, we’re going to expand the study of our home planet from space with the launch of two new satellite missions (GRACE-FO and ICESat-2); we’re going back to Mars with InSight; and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will search for planets outside our solar system by monitoring 200,000 bright, nearby stars. Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe will build on the work of James Van Allen when it flies closer to the Sun than any mission before.

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