Important Occurrences

50th Anniversary of the Dawn of the Space Age
Sputnik 1
The Space Age roared to life on a Friday in October 1957 when Russia's Old Number Seven rocket lobbed a thermometer, a silver-zinc battery and a radio transmitter in a 23-in. polished aluminum ball from the surface of Earth to a place so high above the atmosphere it couldn't come all the way down again.

The 184-lb. ball was Sputnik, mankind's first artificial Earth satellite.

The satellite was pressurized with nitrogen circulated by a cooling fan. The thermometer changed the frequency of the two radio beacons. Attached to the outside of the satellite were two eight-ft. and two ten-ft. radio antenna whips.

For three weeks, as it twirled around the world every 96 minutes in a globe-girdling orbit 588 miles above our heads, Sputnik beep-beeped its visionary message of a future above the ocean of air.
Listen to Sputnik's radio signal

After 92 days, Sputnik burned as it fell from orbit into the atmosphere January 4, 1958.

Three centuries ago. The English mathematician Isaac Newton, working on his new theory of gravitation in 1687, uncovered the theoretical possibility of orbiting an artificial satellite of Earth. However, it wasn't until the early 20th century that scientists figured out how to send a satellite high enough and fast enough to place it in orbit around Earth.

Russian thinker Konstantin Tsiolkovsky originated theories and American tinkerer Robert Goddard conducted experiments which confirmed a satellite might be carried to space on a rocket.

World War II research between 1943 and 1946 indicated the rockets then available were too weak to boost a satellite to Earth orbit. Engineers returned to their drawing boards.

After the war, far-reaching research on rockets for upper-atmosphere research and military missiles was extensive. By 1954, engineers knew they would be able to launch a satellite to Earth orbit sooner or later. That year, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) Committee asked nations to launch science satellites for space exploration. The USSR and the U.S. announced plans for small IGY satellites in 1955.

First Satellites Launched By Spacefaring Nations

1957 Oct 4
source: USSR
satellite: Sputnik 1
rocket: Old Number Seven
launch site: Baikonur Cosmodrome

1958 Jan 31
source: USA
satellite: Explorer 1
rocket: Jupiter-C
launch site: Cape Canaveral

1965 Nov 26
source: France
satellite: Asterix 1
rocket: Diamant
launch site: Algeria

1970 Feb 11
source: Japan
satellite: Ohsumi
rocket: Lambda 4S-5
launch site: Kagoshima

1970 Apr 24
source: China
satellite: Mao 1
rocket: Long March-1
launch site: Inner Mongolia

1971 Oct 28
source: Great Britain
satellite: Black Knight 1
rocket: Black Arrow
launch site: Woomera Australia

1979 Dec 24
source: Europe
satellite: CAT
rocket: Ariane
launch site: Kourou, French Guiana

1980 Jul 18
source: India
satellite: Rohini 1
rocket: Satellite Launch Vehicle
launch site: Sriharikota Island

1988 Sep 19
source: Israel
satellite: Horizon 1
rocket: Shavit
launch site: Negev Desert

2009 Feb 3
source: Iran
satellite: Omid (Hope)
rocket: Safir-2 two-stage
launch site: Semnan
Dasht-e-Kavir desert

2012 Dec 12
source: North Korea
satellite: Kwangmyongsong 3
(Lode Star 3)
rocket: Unha three-stage
launch site: Sohae
Satellite Launching Station

Missiles. A weapons race started in the 1950s when the U.S. and USSR built the first hydrogen bombs. America decided to use airplanes to carry its H-bombs, but Russia turned to a new means of transporting the heavy nuclear weapons to targetsÑintercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs.

Russian engineers, headed by Sergei Korolev, designed the first ICBM rocket in the mid-1950s. Known officially as R-7, insiders thought of it as Old Number Seven.

Tests on parts of the ICBM started in 1956. The next year, the first long-range flight-test rocket exploded on the launch pad in May, but momentum didn't falter. Eight test firings were made in 1957, including two rockets which flew 4,000 miles that August.

Race to orbit. The idea dawned on Soviet engineers that Old Number Seven not only could blast a warhead thousands of miles to impact on Earth, but it also could carry a payload at such great speed and altitude it would be above the atmosphere and orbiting Earth. An artificial Earth satellite could be created.

The first satellite built to ride Old Number Seven was completed in June 1957. Its official Russian name was Iskustvennyi Sputnik Zemli, or "Fellow Traveler of the Earth." The short name Sputnik stuck and today is applied generally to all Russian space satellites.

Members of the Korolev design team referred to their first Sputnik as the "Preliminary Satellite," or PS for short. Sometimes the technicians would honor Korolev by reversing the letters and using his first two initials, SP for Sergei Pavlovich.

Just 24 days after the first successful 4,000-mi. ICBM test, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on August 27 gave the okay to launch a satellite-carrying R-7 toward space.

Khrushchev wanted to launch the beach-ball-sized satellite on September 17, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Konstantin Tsiolkolvsky, known as the father of cosmonautics. However, technical problems pushed the blast-off into October.

The satellite was attached to its rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam on October 2 and covered with a nosecone. The radio was tested in the assembly building and then the booster was transported outside to the launch pad on a rail car.

Hydraulic lifts erected the rocket onto the pad October 3. Four arms supported the rocket against the wind and a white cloth shaded the Sun's heat from the nosecone. Compressed air was blown from a hose onto the nosecone to keep the satellite inside from overheating.

Last-minute work delayed blastoff into the evening of October 4. Finally, a bugler sounded several notes on the launch pad and, at 10:28 p.m. Moscow time, the cluster of rockets forming R-7 was ignited. Thrust built up and the booster was released to climb into the night sky. Strangely, Soviet secrecy prevailed and no photographs recorded the momentous event.

A nail-biting 95 minutes after Sputnik rode Old Number Seven into history, the satellite flew over the cosmodrome and its radio signal confirmed it was in orbit. When the official TASS news agency telegraphed the news around the globe at 5:58 p.m., New York time, October 4, everyone knew the Space Age had dawned.

It was a big deal. Launch of Sputnik was the most significant event since explosion of the atom bomb in 1945. The new satellite stirred the political stew as it raced around Earth in an orbit ranging from 142 to 588 miles altitude, transmitting on frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 megahertz.

Sputnik's one-watt transmitter generated sufficient strength to be received easily by amateur radio operators around the world. Its signals were received first in the U.S. at 8:07 p.m. Eastern time October 4. Thousands of hams recorded its cricket-chirp sound as the satellite's silver-zinc battery lasted beyond its 14-day design life to October 22.

Those times. It was an intense period in the Cold War, not even a year since Khrushchev had boasted, "We will bury you," and a mere six weeks after the USSR had demonstrated its intercontinental ballistic missile.

Sputnik horrified the American ego, sparking a comeback rally in U.S. schools and colleges. Teachers and scientists fondly recall the end of the 1950s as a golden era with U.S. President Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower marshaling the intellectual elite to resuscitate math and science education, but others remember America was mortified by what a writer called that "humiliating beep-beep in the high heavens."

Each beep was an "outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority," according to Claire Booth Luce, a member of Congress and wife of the publisher of Time magazine.

Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington reeled under the "devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technical world."

Labor leader Walter Reuther declared Sputnik a "bloodless Pearl Harbor."

When reporters questioned the President October 9 about Sputnik, Eisenhower called it "one small ball in the air. I wouldn't believe that at this moment you have to fear the intelligence aspects of this."

Admitting Sputnik's 184-lb. weight "astonished our scientists," Eisenhower conceded the USSR had "a great psychological advantage throughout the world."

More sputniks. Not only was the USSR's first satellite launch attempt successful, but a second try 30 days later was too. The 1,119-lb. Sputnik 2 was launched November 3 carrying the live dog Laika on a life-support system.

The capsule remained attached to the converted ICBM. The dog captured hearts around the world as life slipped away from Laika a few days into her journey. Later, Sputnik burned in the atmosphere April 14, 1958.

Sputnik 2 forced the U.S. administration to action. The President made a radio-TV broadcast November 7, naming the first White House science adviser. Later, Eisenhower approved $1 billion for the first direct federal aid to education "to meet the pressing demands of national security in the years ahead."

Vanguard. The U.S. Army and Navy had ballistic-missile projects underway. Each wanted to be the first American service to orbit a satellite.

Two months after the launch of Sputnik 1, Eisenhower gave the Navy a chance to send the first American satellite to orbit aboard that service's Vanguard rocket. The Navy achieved only a spectacular failure of its booster on December 6, 1957. In fact, fearing it might fail, the Navy had referred to the rocket before launch as Test Vehicle No. 3 (TV-3).

With world-wide news media tuned in, Vanguard lost thrust two seconds after launch, a mere four feet off the launch pad. It fell back to the pad and exploded. The tiny six-in. satellite popped out of the flames and rolled away, transmitting its radio signal on the ground. Newspapers called it Kaputnik and Stayputnik.

The Navy tried again to beat the Army on January 25, 1958, but that Vanguard rocket fizzled within 14 seconds of ignition.

Ground Control Stations.

All kinds of satellites today – weather, observation, navigation, communications – must stay in touch with someone on the ground. The work of satellites orbiting hundreds or thousands of miles above our planet is directed by human operators in "ground control stations" on Earth.

Ground control stations are located all around the globe. To tell an unmanned spacecraft what to do, controllers send coded radio signals to the satellite and receive similar signals from it.

For instance, a newly-orbiting satellite can be told to unfold its electrical solar panels and communication antennas and turn on science instruments. Ground controllers can instruct an observation satellite to look elsewhere. A weather satellite might be told to stare at a hurricane. The radio frequency used by a communications satellite to beam down a TV movie can be changed. A spysat can be ordered to modify its orbit to fly its sensors over specific ground targets.

NASA controls its constellation of TDRS communication satellites from a ground station in White Sands, New Mexico. Many military satellites are operated from ground control stations in Colorado and California.

NASA's deep-space interplanetary probes operate in far-flung regions of the Solar System – Magellan at Venus, Galileo approaching Jupiter, Ulysses crossing the Sun, the twin Voyagers at the far outer edge of the System. All are controlled from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, through three giant satellite dish antennas in California, Spain and Australia.
Explorer 1. The U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama, was a vast base where America's rocket pioneers later would design the gargantuan boosters which carried astronauts to the Moon in 1969.

In the late 1950s, those pioneers also had been working on a response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.

Worried about American prestige lost in the Navy fizzles, Washington officials asked the Army to try to send a satellite to orbit.

The Army did the job January 31, 1958, launching its Explorer-1 satellite from Cape Canaveral on a Jupiter-C rocket, a modified version of the Redstone ballistic missile.

The 31-lb. Explorer satellite had been designed by James Van Allen at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Liftoff took place from Launch Complex 26 at what now is known as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Today, the site is home to the U.S. Air Force Space Museum.
50th Anniversary of the Beginning of U.S. Space Exploration »

Radiation belts. Explorer-1's batteries died five months after launch, but by then the 31-pound satellite had discovered intriguing belts of intense radiation circling planet Earth. The belts were named for James Van Allen. On March 31, 1970, Explorer-1 plunged into Earth's atmosphere and burned.

Sputnik's wake-up call and Explorer's discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts spurred further work on artificial Earth satellites.

Army failure. The Army did have embarrassments. Its second try, Explorer-2, failed to reach orbit March 5, 1958.

The rocket fourth stage didn't ignite.

Navy success. The Navy finally reached space-launch success when it sent the tiny 3-lb. satellite Vanguard-1 to orbit from the Cape on March 17, 1958. And the Army's Explorer-3 made it to orbit March 26, 1958, carrying instruments to measure cosmic rays, meteorites and temperature.

Sputnik 3. Meanwhile, the third time was not a charm for the USSR. A rocket failed to boost a large geophysical observatory to orbit February 3, 1958. But, the fourth try, carrying another geophysical observatory, was successful May 15. Sputnik-3 was solar powered and weighed 2,925 lbs.

Explorer 4. The U.S. Army launched Explorer-4 from the Cape July 26, 1958. James Van Allen, analyzing data from Explorers 1, 3 and 4, discovered belts of radiation trapped in the magnetic field surrounding planet Earth.

NASA. Despite resistance from the Department of Defense which wanted to keep space research entirely military, legislation was enacted in the U.S. on July 29, 1958Ñthe National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958Ñenabling the birth of the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On October 1, NASA was founded. It included the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

NDEA. A crash program – the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) – started that September, granted money to graduate students and helped local school districts pay for math and science teachers, school equipment and buildings.

NSF. The National Science Foundation budget nearly tripled from 1958 to 1959, then doubled again by 1962. NSF persuaded scientists to write new text books for high schools, then held summer sessions for high school science teachers.

50 years of space in a nutshell

Commentary by, Ph.D.
Editor, Space Today Online

Over the 50 years, I see two intermingled tracks of space development: human flight and exploration. Obviously, some exploration has occurred during human flight so the dividing line is kind of fuzzy. Here's how I would break them down:

Human Flight

Vostok with Gagarin and then Titov in 1961,and Mercury with Shepard and then Grissom in 1961 and Glenn in 1962, started human flights.

That track moved on through Voskhod to N-1 and Soyuz for the Soviet Union, and through Gemini to Apollo for Americans, and to humans on the Moon in 1969, and and the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz flights in 1975. The USSR could not get it's N-1 to fly so never sent men to the Moon.

The man-in-space track continued on into space shuttles and space stations.

The Russians had eight space stations in three generations starting with Salyut and ending with Mir, which was highly successful. They brought long-term living and working to space. The Russian space station period spanned 30 years, 1971 to 2001. Seven Americans and numerous people from other countries lived and worked aboard Mir.

By comparison, the first residents of the International Space Station arrived just seven years ago in 2000. Sixteen countries are involved in the project, Including Russia and America. A variety of non-professional astronauts – space tourists – have been carried to space stations for visits over the years. Recently we had a school teacher in space. Even if the U.S. pulls out of the ISS consortium in three years or so, space stations will continue to exist for a very long time for science and commerce.

China's entry into human space flight in 2003 was an important signal that America and Russia don't own outer space. The powerful Asian nations -- Japan, India, China -- all want to play in the game. If Russia weren't broke in the short run, it would be a powerful competitor, too.

The Asians really are driving America's renewed vigor in space. If America were to tire of space, they would go ahead anyway. However, the U.S. can't imagine a time when it isn't leading the way in space, so now we are returning to the Moon and pushing outward to Mars and beyond.

The space shuttle fleet is important because they are workhorses, 18-wheelers for space that enhanced long-term living and working up there. It shouldn't be forgotten that the Russians built and flew a space shuttle in 1988. Russia's financial problems also ended that program. The two American shuttle disasters were important because they changed a lot of things in people's minds and in the way NASA does business.

Tragically, 21 astronauts and cosmonauts have died in connection with space flight.

50th Anniversary of the Beginning of U.S. Space Exploration
Explorer 1 was the first U.S. satellite and the first satellite to carry science instruments. (NASA image)
The first American satellite was Explorer 1.

The U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency blasted Explorer 1 into orbit from the Air Force Missile and Test Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1958. The Army used a modified Jupiter-C military rocket to send the tiny satellite aloft.

With Explorer 1, the United States showed it could compete with the Soviet Union, which had launched two artificial satellites to orbit within the previous three months. The Soviets had electrified the public when it launched the world's first human-made satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957.

The rocket project was headed by Wernher von Braun at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency headquarters at Huntsville, Alabama.

The Explorer 1 satellite was built by William Pickering and a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. At the State University of Iowa, physicist James Van Allen and graduate student Wei Ching Lin built the cosmic ray Geiger counters that were the science instruments inside Explorer.

Explorer 1 was the first satellite to carry science instruments. It followed a looping flight path that orbited Earth once every 114 minutes. The satellite went as high as 1,594 miles (2,565 kilometers ) and as low as 225 miles (362 kilometers) above Earth.

Explorer 1 weighed 18 lbs., which compared with a weight of 1,200-lbs. for Sputnik 2, which also carried a live dog to orbit. However, Van Allen's science package inside Explorer discovered a previously-unknown radiation belt around our planet. It was named the Van Allen Belt and was recognized as the greatest science contribution of the International Geophysical Year (1958).

The results of the launches of Sputnik-1 and Explorer-1 were the Space Age, public interest in technology, growth of a high-tech economy, and an increased emphasis on science education.

Chronology of Space Exploration

The USSR's Sputnik electrified the world in 1957 and launched the age of space exploration. Sputnik showed that it could happen and that it was an important thing to do. With its catch-up satellite Explorer in 1958, America made an important leap forward in the vital discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Both nations leaped wholeheartedly into exploration:

1959: The USSR probe Luna 1 was the first human-made object to leave Earth's gravity.
1959: The USSR probe Lunik 2 was the first human-made object to reach another world when it crashed on the Moon.
1959: The USSR probe Lunik 3 was the first spacecraft to go behind the Moon.
1960: Echo, the first communication satellite, was launched by the U.S.
1960: The U.S. launched TIROS, the first weather satellite.
1962: NASA launched Telstar, the first active real-time communications satellite.
1962: The U.S. probe Mariner 2 completed the first successful flyby of another planet, Venus.
1965: The USSR spacecraft Venera 3 was the first to reach another planet when it crashed into Venus.
1965: The U.S. probe Mariner 4 completed the first successful flyby of Mars.
1970: The USSR's spacecraft Venera 7 transmitted data from the surface of Venus.
1971: The U.S. spacecraft Pioneer 10 was launched to become the first human-made object to leave the Solar System.
1971: The USSR spacecraft Mars 3 made a soft landing on Mars.
1971: The U.S. spacecraft Mariner 9 flew into orbit around Mars.
1973: The U.S. spacecraft Pioneer 10 flew past Jupiter.
1974: The U.S. spacecraft Mariner 10 flew past Mercury.
1976: The U.S. spacecraft Viking 1 and 2 landed on Mars.
1977: Voyager 1 and 2 left Earth for Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
1979: The U.S. spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 flew past Jupiter.
1979: The U.S. spacecraft Pioneer 11 flew past Saturn.
1980: The U.S. spacecraft Voyager 1 flew past Saturn.
1981: The U.S. spacecraft Voyager 2 flew past Saturn.
1983: The U.S. spacecraft Pioneer 10 left the Solar System.
1986: The U.S. spacecraft Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Uranus.
1986: Halley's Comet returned to the inner Solar System and was visited by spacecraft from the U.S., USSR, Japan and Europe.
1989: The U.S. spacecraft Voyager 2 flew by Neptune,
1990: The Hubble Space Telescope was launched.
1990: The Magellan spacecraft arrived at Venus.
1991: The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory telescope was launched.
1990s: Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite seemed to support the Big Bang theory.
1993: Mars Observer launched, but failed three days before arriving there.
1996: Mars Global Surveyor launched.
1997: Pathfinder, with its rover Sojourner, landed on Mars.
1997: Cassini probe, carrying Huygens, launched to Saturn.
1998: Japan launched its unsuccessful Nozomi probe toward Mars.
1999: NASA lost the Climate Orbiter and the Polar Lander spacecraft as they arrived at Mars.
1999: The Chandra X-Ray Observatory telescope was launched.
2001: The U.S. probe Mars Odyssey was launcxhed
2003: Spitzer Infrared Telescope launched.
2003: The European Space Agency launched its successful probe Mars Express carrying the Beagle 2 lander, which failed.
2003: The U.S. sent the successful Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
2003: The European probe Mars Express arrived at Mars.
2004: The Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed.
2004: Cassini probe arrived at Saturn.
2004: NASA launched MESSENGER to fly by Venus and on to Mercury.
2005: Huygens probe landed on Saturn's big moon Titan.
2005: NASA launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
2005: The European Space Agency launched its Venus Express spacecraft.
2006: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew into Mars orbit.
2006: The European Space Agency's Venus Express arrived at Venus.
2006: NASA launched New Horizons probe to Pluto and Solar System bodies beyond.
2007: NASA launched the robot explorer Phoenix to Mars. (August)
2007: Japan launched Kaguya Moon probe. (September)
2007: China launched Chang'e Moon probe. (October)
2008: India plans launch of Chandrayaan Moon probe. (April)
2008: U.S. plans launch of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Moon probe. (October)
2012: Russia plans launch of Moon probe.
2020: South Korea plans launch of Moon probe.

Learn more about Sputnik and the dawn of the space age...
Dawn of the Space Age:
Sputnik: the fiftieth anniversary NASA
The Dawning of the Space Age Information Please Almanac
Dawn of the Space Age Library of Congress webcast
Dawn of the Space Age NASA photos
The History of Satellites
The Millennium: A Space and Astronomy Timeline, The Second Millennium, 20th Century STO
Sputnik New York Times
Sputnik Wikipedia
Sputnik-1 Wikipedia
Radio telemetry from Sputnik recorded as it passed overhead .wav file
Reactions by Americans to Sputnik NASA
Sputnik -- Milestones of Flight Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
Sputnik STO
Sputnik: a major turning point in history STO
America's first satellite Explorer-1
Space pioneers recall first U.S. satellite launch upon 40th anniversary NASA
Space pioneers recall first U.S. satellite launch upon 40th anniversary Air Force Space and Missile Museum
The Beginning of U.S. Space Exploration NASA
Explorer-1 Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
Explorer-1 University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)
Explorer-1 NASA
Explorer-1 and Jupiter-C NASA
First American Satellite STO
Sputnik-2 Wikipedia
Sputnik-2 NASA
Laika and Sputnik 2 STO
Plans 1955 & IGY 1958:
The White House announced plans, July 1955 NASA
International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1958 NASA
National Aeronautics and Space Act (the "Space Act") NASA
NASA History homepage NASA
NASA History search page NASA
NASA Wikipedia
NASA Origins and the Dawn of the Space Age NASA
The Space Race:
Space Race Wikipedia
Space Race Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
Space Race Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
The Space Race Newseum
Space Race National Geographic
The Cold War:
Cold War Wikipedia
The Cold War Cold War Museum
Cold War CNN
Other information
Space Rocket Launch Sites Around the World STO
Man-in-Space Firsts STO
The first man and woman in space STO
Leaders Among Women in Space STO
Space Race STO
History of Space Science and Astronomy STO

More Occurrences
Environmental flagship Terra

Earth's Environment
Takin' the A Train

The environmental satellites in NASA's Earth Observing System are gazing down on our planet from the unique vantage point of space measuring how Earth's lands, oceans, air, ice and life function together as an environmental system.

The first three in orbit are Terra, Aqua and Aura.
    Terra is the flagship of NASA's Earth Observing System of satellites gazing down on our planet, measuring how land, ocean, air, ice and life work together. TERRA continuously maps Earth's land surface and measures heat, light and atmosphere to help scientists fathom environmental changes and human impact on future climates.

    Aqua is about water, helping us fathom changing climates, global warming, heavy weather, hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms of the century. AQUA continuously maps Earth's water system to help us understand whether global warming causes a deluge of heavy weather. It brings insight into our world's water cycle, precipitation and evaporation.

    Aura is about trace gasses in the atmosphere so we can understand global climate change, global warming, global movement of polluted air, and ozone depletion in the stratosphere. AURA is part of a flotilla with Terra, Aqua, CloudSat, Parasol and Calipso. Their overlapping radars are about the role of clouds in weather and climate.

Learn more about the A Train...

NASA radar image of Toutatis
Toutatis mysteries explored by NASA radar

Asteroid Will Miss Earth

A giant dumbbell-shaped space rock, broader than the city of Passaic, New Jersey, did not strike Earth as it passed by on September 29, 2004 ­ and it will not strike our planet in our lifetimes, according to NASA.

The giant asteroid we call Toutatis passed us by at a distance of less than 994,000 miles. That is only about four times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

The last time the 2.9-mile-wide Toutatis came so close was back in the 12th century in the year 1353. The 2004 pass was the closest Toutatis will come for another 500 years.

Officially known as Number 4179, the asteroid Toutatis has concerned us since 1989 when it first was spotted by French astronomers and named for a Celtic god. Today, it is listed officially as a potentially hazardous asteroid.

How big is it? Toutatis is a small body about 2.9 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and 1.2 miles deep.

The asteroid's odd shape and peculiar rotation makes it one of the strangest bodies in the Solar System. In pictures, it looks like two rocks connected by a narrow neck. Its configuration probably is the result of violent collisions in the past.

Toutatis flies around the Sun every four years. Its path takes it out to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and then back inside the orbit of Earth around the Sun.

The plane of Toutatis' orbit is closer to the plane of the Earth's orbit than any known Earth-orbit-crossing asteroid.

If it ever struck Earth, Toutatis would devastate the planet. However, it won't be that close again until 2562 and it won't hit Earth then, NASA says. Of course, there are statistical margins of error in calculating the orbits of distant bodies.

Astronomers know about Toutatis because they bounced radar signals off of it during previous flybys of Earth. In addition to its interesting shape, Toutatis rotates oddly.

While most asteroids, and all of the planets, spin around one axis, Toutatis wobbles like a careless football pass. A good football passer throws a perfect spiral.

What makes this asteroid different? Instead of one north pole, it has two. This asteroid wanders around in two rotation cycles of 5.4 and 7.3 Earth days.

If you were able to look up at the sky from the pockmarked surface of Toutatis, the stars never would seem to follow the same path twice as they crisscrossed the sky.

By the way, astronomers aren't sure what it would be like to stand on the asteroid because they don't know if Toutatis is covered with a thick layer of loose dirt like the Moon or a harder surface.

There are other asteroids that don't rotate on just one axis, and there are many odd-shaped bodies. In fact, hundreds of kilometer-wide and larger asteroids have been seen near Earth in the last decade.

Watchers on Earth as Toutatis passes by will be able to see it tumbling through space. Binoculars or a small telescope will be needed on a clear dark night. The asteroid will be seen as a point of light, like a star. Surface details won't be see because the asteroid will be too far away.

Should we send a probe to land on Toutatis when it returns four or eight years from now?

Learn more asteroids...

Milky Way galactic center
Burper Near Milky Way Center

Milky Way Burper

The arrow in the image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, above, points to the location of a previously unknown type of space object that may be the source of powerful bursts of radio wave energy. The source is below a large expanding ring of debris from a supernova remnant.

The image was provided by the Naval Research Laboratory and Sweet Briar College Galactic Center Radio Group led by physics professor Scott Hyman of Sweet Briar, Virginia. The source of the radio energy has been labeled GCRT J1745-3009.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array (VLA) radiotelescope in New Mexico collected radio energy of about 1-meter in wavelength, which revealed five outbursts from the source repeating at remarkably constant intervals during a seven-hour period from September 30 to October 1, 2002.

The five bursts from GCRT J1745-3009 were the most powerful seen. They were of equal brightness. Each lasted about 10 minutes and they reoccurred every 77 minutes.

Although the exact nature of the object remains a mystery, GCRT J1745-3009 probably is either the first discovered member of a new class of objects or else it is a previously unknown kind of outburst from a known class of sources. No X-ray energy was seen coming from GCRT J1745-3009, indicating it must not be a black hole.

Learn more about the Milky Way...

Europe's Ariane rocket
Europe's Ariane rocket

Spending the Most
on Space Work

A handful of nations around the world are spending around $24 billion a year on space work. Who's leading humanity into space? The U.S. budgets about two-thirds of the total. Next closest is the European Space Agency which accounts for about 15 percent of the total. China spends about 8 percent and Japan about 7.5 percent.

NationAnnual Budget
USA$15.5 billion
Europe$3.6 billion
China$2 billion
Japan$1.8 billion
India$450 million
Britain$310 million
Russia$188 million
Brazil$53.6 million
Nigeria$22.4 million
Source: Time Magazine, Feb. 16, 2004

Bug Nebula
Bug Nebula NGC 6302

Hubble Snares Space Bug

Looking like a colossal butterfly in its Hubble Space Telescope portrait, the Bug Nebula is a huge mass of gas and dust hiding a hot dying star 4,000 lightyears from Earth.

Officially labeled NGC 6302, the Bug Nebula is seen in Earth's southern sky constellation of Scorpius. The temperature of the star at the heart of the nebula is around 450,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

A nebula is a star, like our Sun, which has grown old and shed the outer layers of its atmosphere. In the case of the Bug Nebula, the material ejected seems to be flying away in two opposite directions.

The interesting thing about this beautiful butterfly is its odd mix of ice crystals and minerals. It must consist of something like hailstones frozen onto grains of dust.

The ice crystals are water while the dust may be iron with hydrocarbons and carbonates, such as calcite. Because carbonates form when carbon dioxide dissolves in liquid water and forms sediments, their presence points toward liquid water in the past. Scientists find it all very odd since they assume there was no liquid water in the Bug Nebula.

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Hubble sees Venus
Hubble sees Venus

Venus Transit

For the first time since 1882, Venus passed directly between Earth and the Sun on June 8, 2004. For six hours the planet's black silhouette floated across the face of our star.

It was visible from Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and eastern parts of the Americas.

In 1882, the transit of Venus and a Sun-grazing comet were recorded on photographic plates.

A transit of Venus across the face of the Sun isn't a solar eclipse. The Sun is neither blotted out nor dimmed. In fact, Venus is too small. The disk of the planet covers only 0.1 percent of the Sun.

In an unprecedented occurrence, the International Space Station (ISS) crossed the face of the Sun four times during the six-hour transit of Venus.

Learn more about the Venus transit...

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