578. That Odd Spiral

This is the track of Sputnik, the first satellite launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at latitude 46 degrees north. Launches from Cape Canaveral followed paths that were more flattened out because they were launched from 28 degrees north.

The orbital path shown above was to be found in thousands of publications at the dawn of the space age. Everyone carried the image in their heads, but today I had a hard time finding it on the web. My how times change.

Every space geek in 1960 would have known everything in this post, but then Star Trek came along. Kirk and Spock, and especially Uhura, went at warp speed and walked around on the floor like it was a sound stage in Hollywood. No weightlessness there. Then Star Wars came along and all veracity went out the viewplate.

There were a lot of very basic principles of physics that governed the space program, which Hollywood had to ignore.

Let’s begin on the ground. The Earth rotates eastward at a certain number of miles per hour. (We are channeling 1960 here. None of the published reports on space used the metric system back then.) Any geek with a pencil could figure out rotational speed by dividing equatorial circumference (25,000 miles to any 1960’s space fan, forget the decimals.) by the length of the day. !042 miles per hour eastward at the equator.

A spacecraft in low Earth orbit flies at 17,500 miles per hour. Actually that varies, but that was the figure in all the space enthusiasts books at the time. If you launched a rocket eastward, you started with about 1000 mph of free speed. If you launched westward, it would cost you 2000 mph of extra speed. You wouldn’t gain the natural advantage, and the rocket would be going 1000 mph the wrong way as it sat on the ground.

Everyone launched eastward.

There was actually another reasonable option, launch north or south. We’ll look at that choice at the bottom of the post.

Actually you don’t get all of that speed advantage. The circumference of the Earth is less as you move northward, lowering the eastward speed. If a United World wanted to choose the most advantageous place for a spaceport, it would be at high altitude somewhere on the equator. That happened frequently in science fiction.

Neither America nor Russia had a far southern point suitable for a space port. America’s best choices were Texas and Florida — the same two states Jules Verne pointed out in From the Earth to the Moon. Florida had the added advantage of having the Atlantic ocean to eastward, which provided a place to drop first stages and failed rockets, without landing on anybody’s house.

Russia built in the desert at the same latitude as Portland, Oregon, but they always chose secrecy over other factors.

Launching eastward is an exaggeration, of course. Straight east from either site won’t work; launches had to be aimed south of east to bring the center of the orbit into line with the center of the Earth’s gravity.

You might think that a launch from Canaveral would return to Canaveral after one orbit, but that isn’t true. The Earth is rotating eastward, so a spacecraft launched from Canaveral will pass over a spot about a thousand miles west of Canaveral on its first return. And so forth. Which is why the cosmonauts were a thousand miles off target after one extra orbit in yesterday’s post.

All this gives us that odd spiral at the top of the post.

In fact, you could launch a spacecraft into orbit from any point on Earth as long as its orbital path circled around the Earth’s center of gravity. Further south is simply more efficient.

You could even launch satellites due north, and we do, from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast of California. Such satellites also spiral around the Earth, but they cover every part of the Earth eventually. Weather and spy satellites use this orbit.

Southeastward launches from Canaveral and Baikonur don’t cross over the far north or the far south.

What about a satellite exactly circling the equator? In low Earth orbit, it would circle the Earth about every 90 minutes. The moon, a quarter of a million miles further out, circles the Earth in 29 1/2 days. Clearly, even for math challenged enthusiasts, the further out the satellite, the slower it travels in orbit. At some distance from the center of the Earth, it would take a satellite one day to circle the Earth. Seen from Earth, it would appear to hang in one spot above the equator.

Everybody should know that, because that is how communication satellites work. The first person to recognize the fact and calculate the distance was Arthur C. Clarke, known even to non-SF readers from 2001, a Space Odyssey. The connection between science and science fiction has always been close.


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