October 11, 1958: NASA’s First Launch
NASA launches Pioneer 1, the first spacecraft launched by the newly formed space agency. Originally intended to fly by the Moon, a launch malfunction due to a programming error caused Pioneer 1 to only attain a ballistic trajectory which caused it to fall back to the Earth after 43 hours of flight. However, useful scientific data was returned by the spacecraft (pictured above, replica of Pioneer 1 on display at the Udvar Hazy Center. Photos: Richard Kruse, 2009)
A quantity of scientific information was returned, showing:
- The radiation surrounding Earth was in the form of bands or belts.
The Van Allen belts refers specifically to the radiation belts surrounding Earth. At least two layers (sometimes three) of energetic charged particles (plasma) that is held in place around the planet Earth by the planet’s magnetic field.
- Measuring the extent of those bands.
- Mapping the total ionizing flux, (how the region of the upper atmosphere – from about 85 km (53 mi) to 600 km (370 mi) altitude, which includes the thermosphere parts of the mesosphere and exosphere flex – bend and flex.
- Making the first observations of hydromagnetic oscillations of the magnetic field (of course we all know what that is).
- Taking the first measurements of the density of micrometeorites and the Interplanetary Magnetic Field.
Picture above – The heliospheric current sheet is a three-dimensional form of a Parker spiral that results from the influence of the Sun’s rotating magnetic field on the plasma in the interplanetary medium.
The interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) is the term for the solar magnetic field carried by the solar wind among the planets of the Solar System.
The spacecraft ended transmission when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after 43 hours of flight over the South Pacific Ocean.