Fun Facts About Vanguard 1: The Oldest Man-made Object In Space

Nearly sixty years ago, the US Navy launched Vanguard-1 as a response to the Soviet Sputnik. Six decades on, it’s still circling the earth.

Vanguard 1 is the earth’s oldest satellite. As America’s second satellite, it was launched into space on March 17, 1958. And though it only blasted off some six months after the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite, Vanguard 1 still remains in orbit for over 60 years now. This makes Vanguard the longest-orbiting artificial satellite of the earth, as well as the oldest human-made object still in space. Although Vanguard stopped communicating with Earth in 1964, it will remain in orbit for centuries to come.

A satellite the size of a grapefruit

Part of the key to the satellite’s longevity is that it is truly puny. Vanguard 1 is a metal sphere that weighs just 1.5 kilograms and stretches 16.5 centimeters across — making it smaller than a basketball. Or, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev dubbed it, “the grapefruit satellite.” Despite the satellite’s minuscule measurements, Vanguard 1 was groundbreaking and its legacy lives on.

Waging Peace in the Cold War

Vanguard 1 was intended to make the US the first nation in space – hence its name, meaning “leading the way”. Back in the day space exploration was not just about science, it was also about winning hearts and minds. These first satellites were ideological weapons to demonstrate the technological advancement and superiority of communism or capitalism. Project Vanguard was run by the US Naval Research Laboratory. Thus, the perception of the public was significant and they tried to give the satellite a civilian spin to present the US’s intentions in space as peaceful.

Descendants of Vanguard 1

Vanguard 1 is considered the progenitor of all American space exploration today. On March 17, 1958, nearly six months after, the little polished sphere was lofted up to a height of around 600km above the earth, and there it has stayed, long after its batteries died. Technically, Vanguard 1 is space junk; but it doesn’t pose a great collision risk to other satellites. It has survived so long simply because its orbit is higher than the other early satellites

First satellite to be powered by solar energy

Solar power was a brand-new technology in the 1950s and Vanguard 1 was the first satellite to be powered by solar energy, representing a significant innovation. Its solar cells meant that it could transmit information for years, rather than the days that a battery held power.

Whipple’s Project Moonwatch

When something the size of a grapefruit is launched, you can predict where it should end up, but you don’t know if it’s there until you have seen it. Someone has to look for it. This was the purpose of Whipple’s Project Moonwatch. The volunteers from across the globe watched for the satellite using telescopes and binoculars supplied by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Vanguard 1 represents the peaceful uses of outer space and it is a physical reminder of the competition to imprint space with meaning in the early years of the Space Age.


Satavisha hails from the city of joy, Kolkata. She took up writing as my profession amid the pandemic when the world was at a standstill. Here, she acquired a balance between her passion for writing and sharing various ideas and facts through her stories.
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