Thursday, July 12, 2007

The first seven years in orbit

The ICOMOS Australia conference is on in Cairns next week. John Campbell and I are convening a session on space heritage, and we're very excited, because Beth O'Leary from New Mexico State University is visiting Australia for the first time. Beth has been researching Tranquility Base and will deliver one of the keynote talks.

As per bloody usual, I'm writing my paper at the last minute (why, oh why, do I always do this?). I'm looking at the material record in orbit from 1957, the launch of Sputnik 1 into Low Earth Orbit, until 1963, when Syncom 1 is launched into geosynchronous orbit. Only seven years to get from LEO to GEO, and then another seven years until people land on the Moon. Pretty astonishing.

Looking at the figures has raised some interesting points. I expected to see a more or less equal distribution of USA/USSR satellites still up there. But the satellites remaining in orbit from the first seven years are almost entirely US, the main exception being Canada's Alouette 1. What happened to the Russian satellites?

One reason they are underrepresented is because during this period the USSR was focussing on the Moon, so quite a few have ended up in lunar orbit or cislunar space. (This makes me realise I don't know much about how lunar orbits work, in the absence of aerodynamic drag. Must find out). (And isn't cislunar a fabulous word?). Numerous other missions were crewed, and thus returned to Earth.

Another explanation may be that USSR satellites were injected into lower orbits than USA ones and have decayed at a greater rate. I won't have time to pursue this before the conference unfortunately.

I am going to imagine a scenario where all we have is the orbital material to work out how humans got into space. What will this first seven years tell us, and how might it differ from the documentary record?

I'm also going to take a closer look at the fascinating West Ford project ....

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