Explorer 1 was the first satellite of the United States, launched as part of its participation in the International Geophysical Year. The mission followed the first two satellites the previous year; the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 and 2, beginning the Cold War Space Race between the two nations.
Explorer 1 was launched on January 31, 1958 at 22:48 Eastern Time (equal to February 1, 03:48 UTC) atop the first Juno booster from LC-26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, Florida. It was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt, returning data until its batteries were exhausted after nearly four months. It remained in orbit until 1970, and has been followed by more than 90 scientific spacecraft in the Explorer series.
Explorer 1 was given Satellite Catalog Number 4, and the Harvard designation 1958 Alpha 1, the forerunner to the modern International Designator.
Explorer 1 was designed and built by the California Institute of Technology’s JPL under the direction of Dr. William H. Pickering. It was the second satellite to carry a mission payload (Sputnik 2 was the first).
The total weight of the satellite was 13.37 kilograms (30.80 lb), of which 8.3 kg (18.3 lb) were instrumentation. In comparison the first Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 weighed 83.6 kg (184 lb). The instrument section at the front end of the satellite and the empty scaled-down fourth-stage rocket casing orbited as a single unit, spinning around its long axis at 750 revolutions per minute.
Data from the scientific instruments was transmitted to the ground by two antennas. A 60 milliwatt transmitter fed a dipole antenna consisting of two fiberglass slot antennas in the body of the satellite operating on 108.03 MHz, and four flexible whips forming a turnstile antenna were fed by a 10 milliwatt transmitter operating on 108.00 MHz.
Because of the limited space available and the requirements for low weight, the payload instrumentation was designed and built with simplicity and high reliability in mind, using transistor electronics, consisting of both germanium and silicon devices. This was a very early time frame in the development of transistor technology, and was the first documented use of transistors in the U.S. Earth satellite program. A total of 29 transistors were used in Explorer 1, plus additional ones in the Army’s micrometeorite amplifier. Electrical power was provided by mercury chemical batteries that made up approximately 40 percent of the payload weight.