“The radio signals of the satellite [Sputnik II] were followed and recorded on tape frequently by Mr. C. Newton Kraus, an outstanding radio amateur of Touisset Point, R.I. He had followed Sputnik I signals for the three weeks that the transmitters continued to function.”
―Charles H. Smiley, The First Artificial Earth Satellites, August 1958.
On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite which was called Sputnik I. The word Sputnik simply means “satellite” or, more generally, “fellow traveler.” The quotes from Prof. Charles Smiley, director of Ladd Observatory, are from a report published in The Hinterlands, the Bulletin of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society. He describes how Sputnik I could be seen from all parts of the Earth and reports on the local observations of it: “In Rhode Island, between October 12 and November 27, it was observed at Ladd Observatory of Brown University on 13 different passages for a total of 33.2 minutes.” The observed positions and motion were plotted on a star map.
The satellite itself was only 22 inches in diameter and would have been difficult to see from the ground. Instead, they were observing the rocket that launched the satellite which also entered orbit. The second stage of the rocket was 92 feet long and 9.7 feet in diameter. Sunlight reflecting off the rocket body was much easier to see. Notice that observers in Providence RI, Nantucket MA, and Mansfield CT saw the rocket in a slightly different position against the background stars due to parallax.
The next satellite launched was Sputnik II on November 3, 1957. “Sputnik II was observed visually at Ladd Observatory of Brown University on 14 passages for a total of 54 minutes.” In the photograph there are two subtle streaks from upper right to lower left showing the trail of the rocket. As it tumbled it would appear brighter or darker as the rocket body reflected more or less sunlight.
Both Sputnik I and II carried radio transmitters to send status information to the ground. They operated at 20.005 and 40.002 MHz which could be received using a shortwave radio.
Charles Newton Kraus, Brown University class of 1931, was an experienced amateur radio operator. He was president of the Brown Radio Club while he was a student in the late 1920s. He demonstrated the reception of a television transmission in 1928. His “ham” radio license was 1BCR (then W1BCR after 1928.) He operated an experimental station W1XE and was also issued an experimental license for a police car radio in 1937. According to an obituary in the February 1974 issue of Brown Alumni Monthly: “In 1956, he established contact with Seabee units manning Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic and arranged telephone hookups with families in Rhode Island, who were able to talk directly with Seabee husbands and sons.” In his 1958 report Smiley describes how Kraus recorded the signals from the Sputnik satellites using his amateur radio equipment.
The Soviet Union then launced Sputnik III on May 15, 1958. It was observed visually and the radio transmissions were recorded at Ladd Observatory as Smiley reported:
“The launching rocket for Sputnik III also went into orbit and was easily followed visually. Its brightness varied in a period of about 8 seconds, probably due to tumbling of the rocket in space. At its brightest, the rocket was about as bright as Venus; at its faintest, it was lost to sight even with field glasses. The satellite was somewhat fainter, about as bright as a first magnitude star, but without the vigorous up-and-down in brightness of the rocket”
“The radio transmitter of Sputnik III satellite was strong enough so its signals could be picked up with an inexpensive short-wave set. At Ladd Observatory of Brown University, more than 100 of the first 1000 revolutions of Sputnik III were recorded; some 65 of them were recorded on magnetic tape, covering a total of four and one half hours of signals. In addition, the rocket and satellite were followed visually whenever possible.”
In August 1958 Smiley traveled behind the “Iron Curtain” to attend the Tenth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Moscow. He described the experience in a lecture entitled “The Inside of the Iron Curtain.” This description of his presentation was published in the February 1959 Hinterlands bulletin:
“Professor Smiley said that he envied only three things in the Soviet Union: the turbo-jet passenger planes, the Russian ability to launch large satellites, and some excellent red seedless grapes grown in Uzbekistan. He said that a color photograph of his 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air V-8 was all that was need to convince the Russians that American scientists do not lead a hard life.”
A quote that foreshadows the “Kitchen Debate” between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in July of 1959.