Sputnik’s Transmitter Beeps Again

Sputnik. The first artificial satellite, the launch of which precipitated the space race. Without the frenetic pace of technological advancement as the USA and the USSR vied with each other during the decade following its launch it is safe to say that we might not yet have many of the tools and components we take for granted as electronics enthusiasts and makers today.

[Frank Waarsenburg PA3CNO] has taken on the interesting task of recreating one of the Sputnik radio transmitters using a set of the original Russian tubes.

Sputnik itself was an astounding achievement for the team of engineers and scientists who put it into orbit, but the drive to beat the USA to the post within the 1957 International Geophysical Year meant that it was a surprisingly simple device. A sphere pressurised with nitrogen and with those iconic whip antennas mounted on its outside, containing a battery, 20 and 40 MHz tube radio transmitters, and a fan cooling system. Its design was a Soviet state secret, but in 2013 [Oleg, RV3GM] located the schematic used for the transmitter.

The tubes are slightly unusual, being a wire-ended design with all electrodes mounted on rods the length of the glass envelope. This design feature gave them a resistance to acceleration and vibration, making them suitable for use in aircraft, missiles, and rockets.

[Frank] faced one or two hurdles during his construction, including the development of a suitable power supply and finding an unfortunate bug in the Russian schematic. If you speak Dutch or are prepared to use a translation tool his full write-up can be found in the Dutch-language RAZzies magazine, December issue featuring the power supply (PDF, Dutch), and January issue featuring the transmitter (PDF, Dutch).

The Sputnik satellite has not appeared on its own in these pages before, but we have recently featured the early OSCAR amateur radio satellites and the revival of a piece of space-race-era Soviet rocket technology.

Via [Stefan, HB9TWS], whose English-language coverage of the transmitter was of great help.

35 thoughts on “Sputnik’s Transmitter Beeps Again

    1. Right…not entertainment, just propaganda , which is the only reason you saw it. If it were not for its ability to be used as an instrument of propaganda , the American(or the rest of the non-russian world) would have never seen it. It was an awesome thing to see I bet (I was not alive yet) , but its a shame that the only thing that leads to these sorts of technological advancements is war. If we want to get to Mars , the only thing that will get us there is another space race, but that will not happen, as its political usefulness is far less than it was during the original space race.

      1. One way or the other it was news and reported as a current event, and that is how I saw it as a kid. I’m well aware of the history of the Space Race and the Cold War, having lived through them complete with duck and cover drills at school. Nevertheless the exploration of space was at the cutting edge and many of us were inspired by it, seeing it as one of the positive parts of our life then.

      2. “Right…not entertainment, just propaganda”

        I’m confused, are you implying propaganda is entertainment? Or somehow that being a propaganda tool diminishes the technological and engineering achievement?

        We’re talking about an era when every American adult remembered the time before TV, some remembered life before radio, cars, electricity, and even stoves. Just over 80% of households had TV sets in 1957 and Leave It To Beaver wasn’t even on the air.

        Sputnik captured the attention of the entire planet. It demonstrated that regardless of how powerful a government was, there wasn’t a god damn thing they could do about that satellite flying over head. Regardless of who or why or how, someone fucking put something into space and that was a big fucking deal. It literally changed everything.

      3. I think it’s more complicated than “propaganda”. Sputnik 1 didn’t do anything, other than test that a rocket could get into space and launch a satellite. It did start a “race” but it was technology, not weaponry. Keeping it quiet wouldn’t have served much purpose.

        I seem to recall that the US had already done some work with high altitude balloons, including “satellites”, though it may have happened after Sputnik.

        But, Sputnik transmitted in the shortwave spectrum, where many had receivers able to receive. And it was visible in orbit, apparently the last stage of the rocket. So one wonders if the satellite would have been noticed even without an announcement, or did nobody simply look up?

        Afterwards, it was easier. Knowing there were satellites going up, people made a point of watching or listening. There was the “Kettering Group” in the UK, based at an elementary school, which I remember as being a source about new satellites.

        Even as the satellites used higher frequencies, people listened. Popular Electronics ran a construction article for a converter to hear some satellites about 1963, and had a column for a while, “Satellites on the Air”, listing new launches and their frequencies. The early launches were to either learn something of the process, or learn something about space, it took some years before communication satellites came along.

        Oscar 1, the first amateur radio satellite, went up in December of 1961, just a bit over four years after Sputnik 1. It showed the value of using one rocket to launch multiple satellites, and was the first non-government satellite launched, I think.

        It was a time when satellites, and space, were a fairly mainstream thing.


        1. It is more complicated than propaganda, but it was purely propaganda that started things off. We know that Sputnik is a harmless radio beacon NOW, but at the time all we knew was that the Russians had something in orbit that could be looking down on us. That was the USSR’s intent when they announced it to the world as well….. fear. So of course our response was to get our own widget up there, only ours actually did something.

          1. No. Soviets were actually low key about it, until the USA media whipped up a frenzy. Only then did Soviets pick up on it’s propaganda value and started exploiting it.

            American media would have nothing to chew on if it wasn’t a technological breakthrough. It was. First satellite ever. Even if it was just a chunk of iron, it would have been important. As it was, just tracking the satellite and recording Doppler shifts was enough to provide some scientific data. Signal propagation was another.

            So this is definitely something that the “land of workers and peasants” could be proud of. Similar to Americans landing on the Moon.

        2. Sputnik did a huge amount of science for the day from its limited payload. The timing of the pulses was designed to vary depending on the temperature and pressure inside the craft, and the craft itself was used to measure both atmospheric drag and the propagation of radio waves through the upper atmosphere. Remember, nobody had ever done this before so *every* measurement made on the craft was new science.

          1. According to http://www.russianspaceweb.com/sputnik_design.html, only very limited temperature and pressure data inside the Sputnik could be transmitted, not precise analog values: “If temperature onboard the satellite would exceed 50 degrees C or fall below 0 degrees C, or if the pressure inside fell below 0.35 kilograms per square centimeter, thermal and barometric switches would be activated changing the length of the radio signal sent by the satellite.”

        3. “Sputnik 1 didn’t do anything, other than test that a rocket could get into space and launch a satellite.”

          More precisely, the launch of Sputnik 1 demonstrated that the Soviets had a rocket with orbital capability, and thus had the ability to place a nuclear warhead on any point on earth, or into orbit to reenter at any point, at any time. This was considered a serious military advantage. The technology to actually produce a warhead of suitable size, and to successfully reenter it didn’t then exist, but the door was open.

      4. As someone who lived through the later half of the Cold War in Europe with Apollo, Salyut and myriad other space-race craft orbiting overhead, I’d disagree that the Space Race was a product of war other than that some of the founding technology and scientists came from the WW2 V2 rocket programme. It was an uneasy peace, sure, but it was a peace. And given what my parents generation had lived through across the continent it was a very welcome peace.

        I wish that we could regain the can-do initiative of the space-race era, the people who worked in Baikonur, Houston, and other places during that time really took us forward. I hope that as space exploration becomes a matter of Chinese national pride that we might see something of a return to those days. Imagine what a 3-way space race might give us!

        There is a famous 1970 letter from Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, associate director of science at NASA, to nun in Zambia who asked how he could spend billions of dollars on space exploration when there was famine on Earth. In it he succinctly explains why we should explore space. It’s as true now as it was 46 years ago.


      5. The Sputnik transmission was quite deliberately put in the 20 meter ham radio band, because hams DO NOT ignore incursions into their portion of the radio spectrum. They investigate it, and find out what causes “interference” like those beeps. And the Russians knew that if thousands of ham operators heard their satellite, and could prove it was in space (calculated by the acquisition of signal and loss of signal times), then there could be NO DENYING that they had orbited a satellite.

  1. Beep….. Beeep…. Beep…….. NYET!!!!!!!
    Sputnik was actually the second artificial satellite, the Americans “accidentally” launched a metal cover into space during an early nuclear test.

    1. If you do the math for air resistance and ablation you’ll find it likely burned up before exiting the atmosphere.

      In the fraction of a fraction of a second before that happened, though, it was *hauling ass.*

      1. “During the Pascal-B nuclear test, a 900-kilogram (2,000 lb) steel plate cap (a piece of armor plate) was blasted off the top of a test shaft at a speed of more than 66 kilometres per second (41 mi/s).”

        I’d definitely imagine that it burned up, still impressive either way if that estimate is correct.

      1. Yep even if it was losing speed logarithmically it would still be going faster than escape velocity when it hit the 100 mile up mark. it would have easily escaped the earth’s gravity well.

    2. The metal cover is an entertaining theoretical possibility, but not one that is backed up by a shred of proof. Millions of people worldwide heard Sputnik, meanwhile.

      If you are a real pedant you might advance the idea that Sputnik was the number 2 man-made object to reach orbit. Number 1 being the nose fairing of Sputnik’s rocket. But that is really dredging the barrel of pedantry.

  2. Really?
    A guy builds an interesting thing, writes about it, and shares it with us …
    All anyone can do is argue about propaganda and whether or not it was first?
    What happened to Hackaday’s stance on “being nice” and posting constructive comments?
    Hackaday is looking for people to author articles and projects. I’m sure I won’t see any of
    your names showing up … all you guys can do is piss and moan about other peoples’ projects.
    It’s embarassing.

    Mod edited for emphesis

  3. Wikipedia has some interesting remarks about Vanguard 1, the second U.S. satellite and the only one that’s still up there.

    The spacecraft is a 1.47 kg (3.2 lb) aluminum sphere 165 mm (6.4 inches) in diameter. It contains a 10 mW, 108 MHz transmitter powered by a mercury battery and a 5 mW, 108.03 MHz[5] transmitter that was powered by six solar cells mounted on the body of the satellite. Six short antennas protrude from the sphere. The transmitters were used primarily for engineering and tracking data, but were also used to determine the total electron content between the satellite and ground stations…..

    A 10 mW transmitter, powered by a mercury battery, on the 108 MHz band used for International Geophysical Year (IGY) scientific satellites, and a 5 mW, 108.03 MHz transmitter powered by six solar cells were used as part of a radio phase-comparison angle-tracking system. The tracking data were used to show that the shape of the Earth has a very slight north-south asymmetry, occasionally described as pear-shaped with the stem at the North Pole. These radio signals were also used to determine the total electron content between the satellite and selected ground-receiving stations. The battery-powered transmitter provided internal package temperature for about sixteen days and sent tracking signals for twenty days. The solar cell powered transmitter operated for more than six years. Signals gradually weakened and were last received at Quito, Ecuador in May 1964 after which the spacecraft was optically tracked from Earth….

    The Vanguard 1 satellite holds the record for being in space longer than any other man-made object. On March 17, 2008 it logged its 50th year in Earth orbit.




    I’d love to see us come up with way to recover it. Imagine seeing it in a museum.


    You can listen to recorded sounds from the early satellites here:


    –Mike Perry, KE7NV/4

  4. I actually have a soundclip from “Sputnik 2” that was sent up in 1997? to celebrate the first one.
    (I actually think they threw it out from MIR?)

    As I was standing, in a public place listening for it (on 2m ham radio band), an old gentleman heard the sound and came up to me and said, “that’s the sputnik, isn’t it?”

    He had been listening to the original as a kid, and he knew that sound.

  5. Sputnik 1 burned up on 4 January 1958, as it fell from orbit upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, after travelling about 70 million km (43.5 million miles) and spending three months in orbit

  6. I remember our President said in effect.”it is what is is”. I remember in short order plans were laid to match and then immediately surpass the success of Russia. I am a ham operator and have saved (hoarded) tubes etc. for 60 years. Could I ask what the tube complement was. Nice read W8EEO

  7. I couldn’t find the Sputnik Silver Zinc battery voltage. The Sputnik diagram shows +130Volts for the source power and -7.5 volts for the filaments, I assume these are DC voltages. I could not a Power diagram to show how the batteries are connected to the transmitter and any other load it might have (like the heaters). Is there any diagrams available that shows it. This Russian stuff is just hard to find.

  8. Vy cool ! – since ys i try to built up a sputnik like beep tx with small tubes… and beeping my call.
    in 1957 – as sputnik starts i was 3 ys old, saw and heard that in s/w tv. my familiy was the first one in street that had a VHF TV. i built up a wooden sputnik. forgot that all later on for a while. but radio and tv is my life !!! In 1971 i’ve got my first lis…

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