Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After 50 years, Oberg suggests, why not bring Vanguard back to Earth?

True pioneer Jim Oberg has articles in Astronomy, and one better on MSNBC where he discusses faithful Vanguard, which without fanfare or much notice, began it's fifty-first year in orbit, Monday.

Officially, Jim reports, Vanguard is "not space junk," and enjoys a singular place in history as easily the longest lasting spacecraft, constructed and launched before the creation of NASA.

Though it ceased functioning in 1964, Vanguard has orbited Earth almost 200,000 times and has declined in it's overall 400 to 2,400 mile orbit, circling Earth once every 133 minutes, by only an astounding 60 miles since launch, March 17, 1958.

Vanguard was the first spacecraft powered by solar cells, and contributed such previously unknown information as the actual size and shape of Earth, which turned out to be an "oblate spheroid," and slightly "pear-shaped," as we all know today, and hardly perfectly round.

As by far the oldest artificial satellite, its development began in 1955, before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and it outlasted even the U.S.S.R., just as it outlasted Sputnik, Explorer I and Sputnik II. Vanguard is certainly a treasure, and U.S. Air Force Space Command continues to keep track of it's location along with tens of thousands of mostly unrecognizable, true "space debris." It's official number is "00005," though it was the fourth vehicle to successfully enter orbit, the NASA designation begins, apparently, with less fortunate Buses that died along with their buggy boosters. Not so, Vanguard, however.

And, as a demonstration of robotics technology, Oberg joins others in proposing a retrieval as a museum piece, and discusses more on that possibility with Dennis Wingo, who has an actual, relatively low cost plan to make this happen.

Since Vanguard and I are almost precisely the same age, my having been a week shy of my first birthday, born before Sputnik and 53 weeks after its launch, something in me wants to see the rascal, certainly.

I would buy a ticket, and would be interested from a science standpoint to study this ultimate "long duration exposure facility," close up.

Nevertheless, however eccentric Vanguard's orbit may seem, it is obviously as "highly stable" as Oberg claims, and while it has traveled through Van Allen radiation and solar cycles swells of upper atmosphere, high and mighty and barely touching low-Earth-orbit at perigee, and then well out and away with an awesome view of the "rock from which it was hewn," a half-century ago. It isn't so high that a manned mission couldn't creep up on the speedy 1.5 kilogram wonder.

Perhaps restoring it to operation, just as anyone would any antique car from the time, and leaving it to fly on continuing to challenge the ages and as witness to a time of small beginnings, a veritable spore of the DNA from which much of our staggering, stumbling space program drew pattern.

In short, Jim. I gladly thank Nancy Atkinson, over at Universe Today, who flagged me on the wee beastie's birthday having at least been noticed by you and few others on it's happy day.

But I would just as soon pass up on a visit to the Smithsonian, and despite the hazards (more so than a trip to ISS) I'll gladly visit and examine and promise to take good pictures of this one up close, but preferably in the environment for which it was designed and then proven to be so well-suited.

See Jim Oberg's excellent article on Vanguard HERE.

1 comment:

Joel Craig Raupe said...

Worshipful Master Oberg (and the tone in most Blogging would indicate this to be a sarcastic title. It is not.) claimed retrieval of Vanguard I would be very difficult. And, I don’t disagree.

Near Earth Orbit, as opposed to Low-Earth Orbit, is intrinsically dangerous for the very reason Vanguard’s predecessor Explorer I discovered.

James Van Allen’s Belt of trapped, highly ionized charged particles, renewed by influx of solar activity and trapped between the compressed major field lines of Earth’s magnetic field. The fuel necessary to achieve the orbit depends on several factors, obviously, especially if such a mission were carried out by a manned vehicle.

Considering NASA’s reluctance to perform this last Hubble repair, this Summer, which even for a Hubble enthusiast like me appears no-longer cost effective, with a second Orbiter on the pad and heightened safety requirements – just taking the rendezvous into consideration, performed at a much higher altitude than the ISS – I don’t think the Shuttle could practically perform such a mission… even unmanned. It would be far too expensive, as a start, and probably unmanned.

Not going to happen anyway.

The inclination is not terribly low, still at 34.25 degrees off the equator, as you might expect from a vehicle launched from Kennedy, but a launch for Kourou would have the advantage of the additional speed of the rotation of Earth’s surface nearer the equator. And the orbital eccentricity of 0.1909, with Periapsis at 654 km and Apoapsis at 3969.0 makes a quick rendezvous window exceptionally tight.

The speed of this, the oldest space vehicle, at Periapsis would be markedly faster than any similarly high target and slow at Apoapsis, as Kepler would figure. So orbital changes, at the Hunter’s Ap and Pe could probably reach Vanguard in a day, and then back again, even using a RCS.

So difficult, yes, but very difficult… I don’t think so. Dangerous, absolutely. But the size of the target would be a decided advantage, weighing less than 2 pounds, and despite it’s jaunty antennae. It wasn’t built for a suit case. And timing the mission would require quite a bit of chin scratching and number crunching, not just because of the quick rendevous window. (A robot wouldn’t need such a tight window. But who doesn’t like a challenge.)

The challenge would be in getting a robot not to foul it up, or damage it, with very strong human VR remote control. Or you could just send me. I’d be real careful. Really.