Sixty years ago, the world entered the Space Age when the USSR launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.
In the wake of the Second World War, the Americans and Soviets began to become seriously interested in developing missiles and rockets. As part of International Geophysical Year (July 1957 to December 1958), the two superpowers embraced the challenge of placing a satellite into orbit around Earth.
The Soviets were eventually the first to reach the goal when they launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
A small aluminum sphere with a diameter of 58 centimetres and a mass of 84 kilograms, Sputnik 1 was equipped with a radio transmitter that could transfer data on the temperature and pressure inside the satellite and broadcast the beeps that would become famous the world over.
The satellite operated for 22 days till its batteries ran out of power. It disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958, after making 1,400 orbits around our planet.
Despite its small size, Sputnik 1 had an enormous impact worldwide and especially on the United States. The Cold War was raging at the time, and the beeps emitted by the tiny satellite fired up our collective imagination. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev quickly realized that the Sputnik 1 launch could be a powerful propaganda tool. The Space Race then turned into a fierce competition between Cold War rivals.
After a difficult start, space exploration was marked by many other achievements: the first humans in space, the manned mission to the Moon, and the robotic exploration of planets in the solar system. But although we may take space exploration for granted today, we’re still far from being able to colonize these new worlds in the way that science fiction authors have long imagined. As Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, famously said, space is the final frontier for human exploration.
The planets in October
Unless you’re an astronaut up in space, you can only admire our starry sky from afar. When night falls and the sky darkens, look up and try to spot small dots of unblinking light that move across the sky without emitting a sound. These aren’t airplanes, but rather artificial satellites. These descendants of Sputnik circle Earth from hundreds of kilometres away. At this altitude, they’re still lit by the Sun while the ground below is covered in darkness. None of these satellites are as big and bright as the famous International Space Station. The ISS will in fact complete several visible passes above Quebec in the early evening during the first half of October. Sites like heavens-above.com provide precise forecasts of when satellites will pass over your area — Montréal, for instance.
As for the planets, Saturn parades across the evening sky in October. Appearing at twilight above the southwest horizon, the ringed planet sets around 9 p.m. To locate it, look for the crescent Moon to the right of Saturn on the evening of October 23. The next evening, the Moon lies to the left and slightly above the planet.
Venus, meanwhile, appears much later at night. It’s easy to spot because it’s the celestial body shining like a beacon above the east horizon less than two hours before sunrise. On October 5 at dawn, the dazzling Venus is located just beside Mars. Indeed, the two planets are only a quarter of a degree apart, so don’t miss this remarkable conjunction. Though not nearly as bright as Venus, Mars has a distinct reddish glow.
The two planets eventually move apart. On the morning of October 17, the crescent Moon is to the left of Mars, while Venus is below and to the left of this duo. The next night, a very thin crescent Moon is now to the left and under Venus.
An occultation not to be missed
In closing, occultations of bright stars don’t occur very often, so we should make the most of every opportunity that comes our way. At dawn on October 15, the waning crescent moon will hide Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. In Montreal, the star will vanish behind the moon’s bright limb at about 5:57 EDT, and will reappear from behind the dark limb around 6:35. (Note that the exact timings depend on your precise geographical location. So be ready a few minutes before the stated times.) The phenomenon occurs more than 35 degrees above the east-southeast horizon; it will be the last occultation of Regulus visible from Montreal until February 2, 2026!