50 years ago on August 7, 1959, the United States of America launched a small, unmanned, spheroidal satellite into space, which was named Explorer 6, nicknamed Paddle Wheel, from the Atlantic Missile Range in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The satellite was launched to study trapped radiation of various energies, galactic cosmic rays, geomagnetism, radio propagation in the upper atmosphere, and to take photographs. You can watch the NASA Explorer 6 take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 7, 1959 on YouTube.
Explorer 6 was the first satellite to take crude pictures from above the earth. The very first crude picture from Explorer 6 was taken above Mexico on August 14, 1959 as it was racing westward over the earth at speed of over 20,000 miles an hour. The satellite was around 17,000 miles above the earth surface. The photo in this article is the very first photo that was taken by Explorer 6 which shows a sun-lighted area of the Central Pacific ocean and its cloud cover, which back then was amazing. You can view the very first photo here:
The Explorer 6 satellite had two outputs, which were digital and analog. A UHF transmitter was used for the digital telemetry and the TV signal and was operated for only a few hours each day. It also had two VHF transmitters that were used to transmit the analog signal and they the VHF transmitters were operated continuously.
On September 11, 1959, the VHF transmitter failed. The very last contact with information from Explorer 6 was made on October 6, 1959, and the solar cell charging current fell below what was required to maintain the satellite equipment to keep it running. After the satellites short journey into the upper atmosphere, there was a total of 827 hours of analog and 23 hour of digital data that was transmitted by Explorer 6.
Sometime in late 1959, the anti-satellite mission tested a mock attack on the Explorer 6 at an altitude of 156 miles. The missile did pass within 4 miles of Explorer 6 which made this anti-satellite mission a successful one and could be used for a nuclear weapon, but useless for conventional warheads. In order to record the flight path, Martin’s Bold Orion air lunched ballistic missile transmitted telemetry to the ground, ejected flares to aid visual tracking, and was continuously tracked by radar.
Since the very first spacecraft was launched by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency on January 31, 1958, which was name Explorer, there have been more than seventy United States and cooperative international scientific space missions that have been part of the Explorer program. Over the last 50 years the Explorer programs have made many exciting discoveries including, the earth’s magnetosphere and gravity field; the solar wind; micrometeoroids; ultraviolet, cosmic, and X-rays; ionospheric physics; solar plasma; energetic particles; and atmospheric physics. The Explorer program has also looked into the air density, radio astronomy, geodesy, and gamma ray astronomy. It is just amazing how far we have come and the very clear photographs that we currently get to see of earth compared to those in 1959.
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