Despite being little more than a sphere of metal that let out radio-frequency beeps, Sputnik 1 triggered a thrilling space race that led to astronauts soon orbiting the Earth and walking on the Moon before the 1960s were out, as Richard Corfield describes. Since then, spacecraft have visited planets, flown past comets and even landed on an asteroid.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Sputnik 1, this special issue of Physics World looks back at the story of that particular mission and examines some of the benefits of modern satellite technology. Satellites, of course, underpin communication networks and are essential for observing the Earth to monitor the effects of, say, deforestation or climate change. Indeed, as Roger L Eason, the physicist who invented the US Global Positioning System (GPS), explains, GPS is proving so vital for navigation and surveying that Europe, Russia and China are all planning rival satellite systems.
However, all is not rosy up above. Bruce Dorminey describes how the International Space Station (ISS) has been a successful collaboration between the US, Europe and the Soviet Union and is giving us insights into how the human body reacts to long periods in orbit. But the ISS has swallowed such vast sums of money (NASA alone has contributed $100m) that many have questioned if the scientific pay-back from the 200 or so experiments carried out on the station in low-gravity conditions have been worthwhile.
Another concern, as Laura Grego from the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, is the potential weaponization of space. Satellites are sitting ducks for enemy nations, who might find it tempting to use a missile to knock out, say, a crucial military spy satellite.
Moreover, when China destroyed an ageing weather satellite earlier this year in a test of its nascent anti-satellite weapon system, the explosion created some 2500 new trackable pieces of "space junk", ranging from spent rocket stages and disused satellites to smaller items like astronauts' rubbish bags, and immediately increased the chances of a low-Earth-orbiting satellite colliding with another object by up to 30%. As Edwin Cartlidge reports, many observers think that more needs to be done to persuade nations to prevent further space junk being created in the first place.
Finally, Dan Clery looks at why the US is cutting back on Earth observation using satellites while Europe is increasing its investment in this important area.
Charlie Wallace | alfa
Only an atom thick: Physicists succeed in measuring mechanical properties of 2D monolayer materials
17.01.2018 | Universität des Saarlandes
Black hole spin cranks-up radio volume
15.01.2018 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences
What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...
For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.
Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...
At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.
No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.
Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...
The oceans are the largest global heat reservoir. As a result of man-made global warming, the temperature in the global climate system increases; around 90% of...
08.01.2018 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
17.01.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
17.01.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
17.01.2018 | Awards Funding