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In any nascent endeavor, it is human nature to trumpet even the most modest of achievements. Sure, Pioneer I, didn't make it to the moon, but it went pretty high and confirmed the Van Allen Belts. Sure, Vanguard I was the size of a grapefruit, but it taught us that the Earth is pear-shaped.

In that vein, sure, Pioneer IV, NASA's latest moon shot, may not have been entirely a success, but at least it will be the first (American) probe to sail beyond our planet's celestial companion and into solar orbit.

Launched yesterday on a Juno II, Pioneer IV is essentially an exact duplicate of the less-successful Pioneer III, with a little extra shielding around one of its charged particle detectors to better measure cosmic radiation. In the tradition of focusing on the positive, I will note that Pioneer IV's mission is not just to take snapshots of the moon, but to duplicate the mission profile of its predecessor so as to provide a comparative data set. This is the soul of science--the repeating and repeatability of experiments.



As far as the trip to the moon is concerned, there have only been a couple of minor hiccoughs: one of the three scaling factor taps on one of the counters got knocked out when Pioneer IV's engines shook it a bit too roughly. In English, a scaling factor allows scientists to convert the raw voltages, recorded when charged particles hit the spacecraft, into usable numbers. I don't think this critically damages the instrument. Pioneer IV's transmission also went on the fritz for about 30 seconds while the craft traversed Earth's outer radiation belt.

While we're on the topic of problems, it looks like the little spacecraft is going to pass wide of its target, missing the surface of the moon by some 37,000 miles. This is too far to activate the photoelectric sensors on the spacecraft, which would have been used to activate a camera--if the probe had been heavy enough include a camera! Not a huge loss.

What will really be exciting is to finally give the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's deep space tracking network a full run through its paces. We've never tried to monitor a spacecraft several hundred thousand miles from Earth before. On the other hand, if the Soviets can do it, I suspect we can, too.

So there you have it. We launched a probe that weighed sixty times less than Luna I and which missed its target my a distance ten times greater. And we did it two months after Luna I.

A success? You be the judge...

P.S. Following up on Discoverer I, the Air Force is claiming that they are still receiving sporadic signals from their spacecraft. They've also confirmed that their new rocket is a Thor-Hustler, whatever that is. The Swedish press is calling Discoverer I "The Whispering Satellite" since they can barely hear it, if at all.

I'm still unconvinced. Something's fishy. I just can't tell you exactly what.

See you on March 6 with a book review!





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galacticjourney: (Default)


Something went into orbit on the 28th. Maybe.

Normally, I herald each new space launch with the strident fanfare. After all, when Vanguard or Explorer go up, it's big news and everybody knows about it. But the Air Force's announced launch of "Discoverer" on February 28 has that same sort of strangeness and after-the-fact quality I've come to associate with Soviet Sputnik launches.

Let's back up.

Yesterday, the Air Force announced that it had launched "Discoverer" into polar orbit from its California launching facility, Vandenberg Air Force Base. They said it was an engineering flight designed to test what will someday be a biological sample return mission (i.e. the Air Force will send up animals, retrieve them after several days in space, and study them to determine the effects of space on living things). Apparently, this is the second time they have tried this; the first time was on January 26 of this year, but it was reportedly unsuccessful.

Here is where the story gets a bit dicey:

1) Why was Discoverer launched into a polar orbit? Normally, spaces launches are done from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Aided by the Earth's rotation, the go out on an Easterly course over the Atlantic. This restricts their track to a narrow range of latitudes. A satellite in a polar orbit eventually covers the entire Earth as the planet rotates underneath the track of the probe's flight, making it better suited for mapping and reconnaissance missions.

2) Why wouldn't strictly scientific missions be done under the auspices of NASA, as the Air Force did with the Pioneer moon shots?

3) If Discoverer made it into orbit, why have independent stations been unable to pick up its telemetry on their radios?

4) What did they use to launch it? A capsule-return spacecraft isn't a light vehicle, and neither the Thor-Able nor the Juno II are strong enough to send one into orbit.

Now, I don't want to be visited by the fellows in gray suits for my observational acumen, but putting two and two together, I'd conclude that Discoverer must be a prototype surveillance satellite. If I really wanted to get far out with my speculations, I'd conclude that it's a fake surveillance satellite designed to gauge the reaction of the Eastern Bloc to having a spy probe overhead.

Apparently, the Communists don't care much. Aside from one stern protest from an East German radio station (I know--all Commies are the same), the Warsaw Pact has been conspicuously silent about Discoverer.

Maybe they know it's a fake...





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