The shiny metallic orb hanging in the Earth sciences building at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center looks a lot like a fixture you might find at a modern home décor store. But this mid-century marvel is not for sale. It is a restored flight backup of Vanguard II, Earth’s first weather satellite.
The satellite model was hung this week as a reminder of the people who helped build the foundation for making space-based observations of Earth. Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth science at NASA Goddard, described the satellite:
“Vanguard II was the world’s first meteorological satellite. Developed at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), it was successfully launched by newly formed NASA on February 17, 1959. Vanguard carried two photocells that could scan cloud cover as the satellite rotated in its orbit around the Earth. Unfortunately, the 3rd stage SLV-4 launch vehicle burn caused a precession in the satellite that made the data unusable.”
“While the now silent Vanguard II continues to orbit the Earth, its back-up brother has been restored and mounted in the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Sciences building’s atrium—a fitting resting place amongst the scientists and meteorologists who monitor and study our Earth.”
Some of those scientists, and five retirees from the original NRL Vanguard II team, gathered on April 15, 2019, at NASA Goddard to celebrate the satellite’s 60th anniversary. Angelina Callahan, historian at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, reflected on the historical importance of the Vanguard era. From building satellites and their launching vehicles, to putting satellites in orbit and tracking them, the achievements of the program helped pave the way for satellite missions that followed.
The reflection was also a study on how much has changed. Ron Gelaro, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard, discussed weather prediction in the modern satellite era. Vanguard II carried two photocells and weighed just 21 pounds. The Aqua satellite—launched in 2002 to collect information on Earth’s water systems—carries six instruments and weighs more than 6,000 pounds. Gelero noted, however, that satellites are starting to trend back toward smaller vehicles, such as constellations of microsatellites.
The amount of observations available for understanding weather and climate have also skyrocketed over the decades. For example, MERRA-2 is a reanalysis project at NASA Goddard that combines satellite measurements of temperature, moisture, and winds in the GEOS model. In 1980, MERRA assimilated 175,000 observations for every six-hour period. That number in 2018 neared 5 million observations.
According to NRL: “The scientific experiments flown on the Vanguard satellites increased scientific knowledge of space and opened the way for more sophisticated experiments. Vanguard was the prototype for much of what became the U.S. space program.”
In fact, about 200 scientists and engineers from the Vanguard program moved from NRL to the newly formed NASA in 1958—forming the core of NASA Goddard. You can read more about Vanguard here.