We are in the midst of a new space race. Hundreds, thousands of satellites are being launched into space. They are all joining a trip around the planet. And they are also joining a pioneer. It is Vanguard 1, the oldest satellite in orbit. It remains in space 60 years after its launch.
Centuries of validity
Vanguard 1 was launched into space on March 17, 1958 as the second U.S. satellite. At 62 years old, the probe is the oldest human object still in space.
The spacecraft is a 1.5-kilogram metal sphere with a maximum length of 16.5 centimeters. It was the first solar-powered spacecraft. It was launched into orbit after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik (which was incinerated on entry in 1958). Vanguard holds the record for being the oldest satellite on Earth and will be for centuries.
The first two satellites successfully launched into orbit – Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 – were sent up on small rockets. They did not get that far from the Earth’s surface, plummeting to the planet in the first year. The third satellite (and the first U.S. satellite), Explorer 1, stayed a bit higher for 12 years. Vanguard 1 has a high orbit. It could remain in the vacuum of space for approximately 2,000 years.
However, the record could soon be ended by man’s action. There are private capital projects with the intention of recovering Vanguard 1 and bringing it back to Earth for different reasons. They mention its historical value, which makes it a coveted piece. And to demonstrate that the in-orbit aerospace industry can accomplish this mission.
The oldest satellite in orbit is also a great source of information. It would exhibit the long-term consequences of a satellite’s presence in space.