Continuing on the theme of words completely unchanged since antiquity with new and precise scientific uses, today’s word satellite comes from the Latin word satelles (satellitem is the closest Latin form) meaning an attendant, follower, courtier or life-guard. The great German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler is credited as the first to use satellite to describe a moon around a planet. The first use of satellite to indicate a man-made object was 1936, over twenty years before the Russians actually accomplished it with the launch on October 4, 1957 of the satellite Sputnik. The word Sputnik-Cпутник-1-(the Russians, anticipating more satellites, already called it Sputnik 1) is the combination of the Russian preposition c- (the s- sound, when added to the beginning of a Russian word means with) and the Old Church Slavonic root word poti meaning a road, way or journey, ultimately meaning a traveling companion. Sputnik 1 broadcast its simple radio signal for 22 days before falling silent on this day in 1957.
Currently the United States Space Surveillance Network tracks 22,000 objects in space larger than 4 inches, of which only around 1,000 remain functional satellites. Just over a month ago today one of the larger satellites, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell out of orbit and into the Pacific Ocean. Larger than a school bus and weighing over 13 tons, the majority of the satellite burned up in the atmosphere.
Don’t forget to check out my weekly blog at NPR:
Sputnik replica image courtesy NASA, currently on view at the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum. UARS pre-deployment photo also courtesy NASA.