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
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University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
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