Vanguard 1, First Solar-Powered Satellite, Still Flying at 50

Vanguard 1 celebrated its 50th birthday this year as both the first solar-powered satellite and the oldest artificial satellite still orbiting Earth.

The satellite has traveled 196,990 revolutions of the Earth or 5.7 billion nautical miles in the past 50 years, equivalent to the distance from the Earth to beyond the planet Pluto and halfway back.

The United States launched Vanguard 1 on March 17, 1958, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of the opening salvoes in the Space Race. The Soviets had earlier launched Sputniks 1 and 2, while the U.S. had managed to get Explorer 1 into orbit.

One of NASA's Vanguard satellites. NASA's Vanguard 1 satellite, the world's first solar-powered satellite, launched on March 17, 1958 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the second U.S. satellite and is the oldest satellite in orbit today. (Image credit: NASA)

The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy collaborated to track, build and launch Vanguard. Official responsibility for the satellite fell to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), which based the design on German V-2 and Viking rockets used to probe Earth's upper atmosphere.

Vanguard's solar technology paved the way for other U.S. satellites that have launched since — the early satellite's solar cells operated for about seven years, while conventional batteries powering another onboard transmitter lasted just 20 days.

The satellite fell silent in 1964 after its last solar cells died, but continues to allow scientists to discover the effects of the sun, moon and atmosphere on satellite orbits. NRL researchers used many of the lessons learned from the original Vanguard tracking system to build a Space Surveillance System that can detect unannounced, radio-silent satellites passing over the U.S.

Scientists originally estimated that Vanguard would have a life expectancy of about 200 years. Now the estimate stands at 2,000 years, meaning that Vanguard should see many more anniversaries to come.

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Contributing Writer

Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media.  Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter