Top Ten Heavyweights? An Unlikely Band of Brothers

The Unha-3 rocket stands ready for one of its early launches. Like several other members of the ‘Space Club’, vehicles which lofted satellites were often devised with the intention of wreaking death and destruction. Photo Credit: Voice of America

It is easy to view North Korea’s launch, last week, of its Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 (or ‘Brilliant Star’) satellite through the same lens of suspicion and cynicism as much of the rest of the world; our collective fear of this isolationist state has led us to respond with an almost universal voice of condemnation. In a very real sense, it is quite right for us to do this, for Kim Jong-un’s year-old regime has hardly made significant inroads into reconciling with South Korea or the wider world and has hardly taken strides toward relieving the abject poverty or limited rights of its people. As a species, we have seen the destructive capabilities of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the devastation wrought by nuclear weapons—the proliferation of which should, and must, be contained and controlled, for the sake of ourselves and our children—but it is difficult not to offer a nod of acknowledgement to North Korea. For whatever ‘we’ think of them, our fear cannot cloud the truly remarkable accomplishment of becoming only the tenth nation in history to develop the means and the mettle to place its own home-grown satellite into orbit.

Of those ten, several did not even exist a century ago. The Soviet Union, which placed the world’s first satellite into orbit in October 1957, occupied the territory of the Russian Empire, whilst the Korean Peninsula had been newly absorbed by Japan (No. 4). The People’s Republic of China—No. 5 on the list—was still more than three decades away from its official birth, as was Israel (No. 8). Meanwhile, India (No. 7) remained the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and Iran (No. 9) had recently become a constitutional monarchy. The others, the United States (No. 2), France (No. 3), and the United Kingdom (No. 6), were shortly to lose hundreds of thousands of their young men in two of the most devastating wars ever fought. Truly, the hundred years from 1912 to today have seen remarkable advances as these ten nations and their people have shown the rest of the world what human ingenuity can do. They may hardly be a band of brothers, but they have established themselves as today’s ten satellite-launching heavyweights.

A replica of Sputnik-1, on display in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: NASA

No. 1: Sputnik 1: Launched from Baikonur in today’s Kazakhstan on 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 was one of the most astonishing events of the 20th century and caused the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States to dramatically intensify. Devised as part of Russia’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year, Sputnik—whose name has been transliterated to ‘travelling companion’ or simply ‘elementary satellite’—took the form of a 184-pound sphere, measuring 23 inches across and composed of an aluminium-magnesium-titanium alloy. It was equipped with two pairs of ‘whip’ antennas, like four bristly whiskers, and was placed by its R-7 rocket into an orbit of 139-590 miles, inclined at 65 degrees to the equator. Sputnik’s ‘beep-beep-beep’ repeating signal electrified the world and it was said that anyone who doubted its existence had only to step outside into their backyard to witness it passing overhead. Its signal finally expired when its silver-zinc batteries went dead on 26 October, although the satellite remained in orbit until 4 January 1958, when it burned up in the atmosphere.

The Juno I, or Jupiter-C, launch vehicle carries the United States’ first artificial satellite – Explorer 1 – into orbit on 31 January 1958. Photo Credit: NASA

No. 2: Explorer 1: Also launched under the banner of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, Explorer 1 was much smaller than Sputnik 1 and yet more than half of its weight was devoted to scientific instrumentation. At 30.8 pounds, it was about a sixth as heavy as its Soviet counterpart, yet boasted 18.3 pounds’ worth of experiments to examine cosmic radiation, the temperature of the space environment, and acoustic and wire-grid detectors to measure micrometeoroid impacts. Much of this instrumentation was built under the auspices of University of Iowa physicist James van Allen, and it became the first spacecraft to detect the radiation belts named in his honour. Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, atop a Juno I rocket, on 31 January 1958, and entered an elliptical orbit of 222-1,580 miles. Its mercury batteries powered the satellite’s transmitters for almost four months, and although it fell silent in May 1958, its orbit meant that it remained aloft for more than a dozen years. Not until 31 March 1970 did Explorer 1 finally fall victim to Earth’s gravitational clutches, after completing in excess of 58,000 orbits.

No. 3: Asterix: In the eight years betwixt the launches of Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1 and that of the French Asterix, no fewer than three other nations—the United Kingdom, Canada, and Italy—placed satellites into space, albeit with the aid of US launch vehicles. France’s achievement on 26 November 1965 was it became only the third country in the world to independently develop its own satellite and carrier rocket, the Diamant. The French government decided to proceed with the effort in December 1961, using ballistic-missile technology, and the Diamant and Asterix were launched from Hammaguir in Algeria. The 92-pound satellite entered an orbit of 320 x 1,050 miles and was originally named ‘A-1’, in honour of its sponsor, the French Army, but later renamed Asterix for the popular French cartoon character. Its relatively high orbital altitude means that it should remain in orbit for several more centuries.

France’s first satellite, Asterix. Image Credit: CNES

No. 4: Osumi: In the early hours of 11 February 1970, Japan became the fourth nation to launch an indigenous satellite. Its Osumi satellite flew atop a Lambda 4S-5 rocket from Uchinoura Space Center, near the southern tip of the island of Kyushu, and entered an orbit of 200 x 1,500 miles. This orbit enabled it to remain aloft for more than three decades and it finally re-entered the atmosphere in August 2003. It was devised by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science—today part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)—and was intended as an engineering test for future scientific missions. Despite this nature, the 52-pound Osumi was equipped with a miniature observatory, consisting of five experiments to study the temperature and density of the ionosphere and measure solar emissions and energetic particle behaviour in the space environment.

No. 5: Dong Fang Hong 1: Like the French Asterix, the first satellite launched by the People’s Republic of China—Dong Fang Hong 1 (‘Red East’ or ‘The East is Red’)—remains in orbit to this very day. It rose atop a Long March I rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on the evening of 24 April 1970, and was injected into an orbit of 270 x 1,500 miles. Compared to the first satellites of the nations which preceded it, Dong Fang Hong 1 was a true heavyweight: at 380 pounds, it was heavier than Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, Asterix, and Osumi put together. Developed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, the satellite’s experiments focused on studies of the ionosphere and general atmosphere. Its transmitter broadcast the song ‘The East is Red’—used by Chairman Mao as part of his cult of personality—for more than three weeks, until it fell silent. Its attached shiny metallic ring has a magnitude of between +5 and +8.     

The United Kingdom’s first home-grown-and-launched satellite, Prospero, is prepared for flight. Photo Credit: UK Space Agency

No. 6: Prospero: In sixth place in the ‘Space Club’ is this author’s homeland, the United Kingdom, whose ‘Prospero’ satellite was launched from Woomera in South Australia, atop a Black Arrow rocket, on 28 October 1971. Unfortunately, the rocket entered orbit a little too enthusiastically, continued to thrust after separation and accidentally collided with the 145-pound Prospero, knocking off one of its four  antennas. Although a British satellite, Ariel 1, had been launched in April 1962, Prospero represented the first to be lofted by a home-grown vehicle. Not surprisingly, it was named in honour of one of the most famous characters of its nation’s most famous playwright—the wily and vengeful magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest—and carried instrumentation to measure micrometeoroids and evaluate technologies for future communications satellites, including solar cells, telemetry, and power systems. Although Prospero was officially decommissioned in 1996, it remains in a 330 x 870-mile orbit and is expected to stay there for at least another half a century.

No. 7: Rohini 1: India’s Space Research Organisation was initially unsuccessful in launching its first satellite, when the Rohini Technology Payload rose atop the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) carrier rocket from Sriharikoa, off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, in August 1979. A faulty valve and other difficulties caused the booster to crash into the Bay of Bengal, but India rebounded with the successful launch of the 77-pound Rohini 1 on 18 July 1980. This experimental, spin-stabilised satellite carried instruments to monitor the performance of its launch vehicle and remained functional in its 190 x 570-mile orbit until its re-entry in May of the following year.

No. 8: Ofeq 1: It is a sad irony that a nation founded upon the principles of religious faith should have launched its first satellite as a precursor for a generation of military, as well as scientific, spacecraft. The 346-pound ‘Ofeq’—meaning ‘Horizon’—was blasted into a 150 x 710-mile orbit by a home-grown Shavit rocket from Palmachim Airbase on Israel’s Mediterranean coast on 19 September 1988. Satellite and launch vehicle were both created by Israel Aerospace Industries, and Ofeq 1 experimented in solar-power generation and transmission and reception from space and investigations of Earth’s magnetic field, as well as other unspecified tasks. It re-entered the atmosphere in January 1989.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to an engineer describing the capabilities of Iran’s first native satellite, Omid. Photo Credit: AFP

No. 9: Omid: More than two decades after Ofeq-1, Iran launched its ‘Omid’ (‘Hope’) research and telecommunications satellite on 2 February 2009. The launch coincided with the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution and was conducted by Iran’s Safir-2 rocket, upon which several North Korean missiles were believed to be based. Like so many of its predecessors, the mission was exploited by its creators for their own ends: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the 60-pound Omid was intended to spread “monotheism, peace, and justice”, with great effort taken to stress these “purely peaceful” aims. The satellite entered an orbit of 150 x 230 miles and, according to the US Strategic Command, re-entered the atmosphere on 25 April 2009.

No. 10: Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2: In one of the most controversial launches of the ‘Top Ten’, North Korea despatched its Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 into orbit atop an Unha-3 rocket from the Sohae launch site on its north-west coast on 11 December 2012. The 200-pound satellite is reportedly dedicated to estimating crop yields, collecting weather data, and assessing North Korea’s forestry and other natural resources. Its launch vehicle delivered it successfully into an orbit of 310 x 363 miles and it is understood to be carrying a transmitter, which plays the propagandist Songs of General Kim Il-Sung and General Kim Jong-Il. Interestingly, North Korea continues to assert that a previous launch, in April 2009, did successfully inject the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite into orbit. However, neither the United States’ NORAD or Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops tracked any objects in space after the launch and it is generally assumed to have been a failure.

With the admission of North Korea into the ‘Space Club’, many will remain pessimistic of its intentions, owing to collective mistrust about Kim Jong-un’s nuclear aspirations and the appalling record of his regime, and those of his predecessors, toward their own people. Yet similar mistrust surrounded the Soviet Union—which also launched its first satellite from behind the curtain of a closeted and secretive state and controlled its populace with a rod of iron—when Sputnik 1 flew, more than five decades ago. We can pour scorn upon the propagandist nature of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 playing the songs of its founder, Kim Il-Sung, and of his son, Kim Jong-Il, but China’s Dong Fang Hong 1 did exactly the same when it played ‘The East is Red’ to promulgate Chairman Mao’s personality cult.

It is often ignored that most launchers used by the ‘Space Club’ have been derived from ballistic missiles—the very same type of device for which North Korea is presently receiving near-universal condemnation—and that few were originally designed for peaceful purposes. The R-7 Semyorka (‘Little Seven’), which lofted Sputnik 1, was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile and thankfully never fulfilled its early mandate to rain death and destruction upon the West. Similarly, the Juno vehicle, used for Explorer 1, could trace its lineage from the Redstone family of missiles. None of this should detract from the concern over last week’s launch, but the irony is inescapable: that the ‘peaceful’ and ‘scientific’ endeavour of exploring space with satellites has, more often than not, been inextricably tied to military aims and objectives. It has truly been a devil’s bargain.

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