November 3, 1997 was marked in aerospace history. That day, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov was outside the Mir space station removing an old solar panel. Before returning to the interior of the station, he took a small satellite and waited for the space station to orient itself correctly. Once he had a suitable field of vision, he launched the satellite to orbit the Earth with his bare hands. It was the first satellite in history to be launched by hand, and not the only one.


It was about Sputnik 40, or also known as Sputnik Jr. This satellite was a small replica of the mythical Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite that humanity put into orbit. As a replica, it was much smaller in size and was built to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik-1.

While the original Sputnik-1 was about 60 centimeters in diameter and weighed more than 80 kilograms, the Sputnik Jr barely reached 20 centimeters and its weight was reduced to 4 kilograms. Launching it by hand was relatively easy and in fact the most effective way to get it into orbit. Sputnik Jr had arrived a few days earlier at the station aboard a payload rocket. Release it and putting it into orbit was as easy as throwing it out of the space station, gravity took care of the rest.

Inside Sputnik Jr there was a series of lithium batteries to power a small radio transmitter that beeps at 145.820 MHz. On Earth, students from Russia and France who collaborated in its construction were in charge of receiving the signal and confirming that the small satellite was working properly.

It didn’t last long just 56 days after its curious launch, Sputnik Jr stopped broadcasting. Four months later it ended up disintegrating in the atmosphere.

The other two satellites launched by hand

Not happy with it, Russian cosmonauts they launched two more satellites by hand later. The first of these was in 1998 and the next in 1999. Once again, the launches occurred from the Mir space station.

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Sputnik 41 was the one that was launched in 1998 during extravehicular activity. It was a satellite identical to the Sputnik 40 launched the previous year. However, there was a small difference inside: while the Sputnik 40 emitted only beeps, the 41 also emitted recorded voice messages in three languages. The satellite was on broadcast for a month, after which it spent another month in orbit before falling back to Earth.

The third and last satellite to be launched by hand was Sputnik 99 in 1999. In this case it was developed by French and Russian radio amateurs with the help of the flight control center of the Russian Space Agency. The latter also caused the great controversy of the satellite. In an attempt to get funding, they allowed the watch company Swatch to place an audio advertisement on the satellite.

The rest of radio amateurs around the world did not like it for violating the international code of conduct. Before being launched, its emission was deactivated, so when the French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré launched it into space, the satellite was already “dead”.

Vía | Amusing Planet
More information | Gunter’s Space

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