Explorer 1 was launched on 1 February 1958 at 03:47:56 GMT (or 31 January 1958 at 22:47:56 Eastern Time) atop the first Juno booster from LC-26A at the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Center of the Atlantic Missile Range (AMR), in Florida. It was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt, returning data until its batteries were exhausted after nearly four months. It remained in orbit until 1970 and was followed by more than ninety scientific spacecraft in the Explorers Program.
The total mass of the satellite was 13.97 kg (30.8 lb), of which 8.3 kg (18 lb) were instrumentation. In comparison, the mass of the first Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was 83.6 kg (184 lb). The instrument section at the front end of the satellite and the empty scaled-down fourth-stage rocket casing orbited as a single unit, spinning around its long axis at 750 revolutions per minute.
Because of the limited space available and the requirements for low weight, the payload instrumentation was designed and built with simplicity and high reliability in mind, using germanium and silicontransistors in its electronics. A total of 29 transistors were used in Explorer 1, plus additional ones in the Army's micrometeorite amplifier. Electrical power was provided by mercury chemical batteries that made up approximately 40% of the payload weight.
The external skin of the instrument section was sandblasted stainless steel with white stripes. Several other color schemes had been tested, resulting in backup articles, models, and photographs showing different configurations, including alternate white and green striping and blue stripes alternating with copper. The final coloration was determined by studies of shadow–sunlight intervals based on firing time, trajectory, orbit, and inclination.
The Explorer 1 payload consisted of the Iowa Cosmic Ray Instrument without a tape data recorder which was not modified in time to make it onto the spacecraft. The real-time data received on the ground was therefore very sparse and puzzling showing normal counting rates and no counts at all. The later Explorer 3 mission, which included a tape data recorder in the payload, provided the additional data for confirmation of the earlier Explorer 1 data.
Acoustic detector (crystal transducer and solid-state amplifier) to detect micrometeorite (cosmic dust) impacts. It responded to micrometeorite impacts on the spacecraft skin in such a way that each impact would be a function of mass and velocity. Its effective area was 0.075 m2 and the average threshold sensitivity was 2.5×10−3g cm/s;
Wire grid detector, also to detect micrometeorite impacts. It consisted of 12 parallel connected cards mounted in a fiberglass supporting ring. Each card was wound with two layers of enamelednickelalloy wire with a diameter of 17 µm (21 µm with the enamel insulation included) in such way that a total area of 1 cm by 1 cm was completely covered. If a micrometeorite of about 10 µm impacted, it would fracture the wire, destroy the electrical connection, and thus record the event.
After a jet stream-related delay on 28 January 1958, at 03:47:56 GMT on 1 February 1958  the Juno I rocket was launched, putting Explorer 1 into orbit with a perigee of 358 km (222 mi) and an apogee of 2,550 km (1,580 mi) having a period of 114.80 minutes, and an inclination of 33.24°.Goldstone Tracking Station could not report after 90 minutes as planned whether the launch had succeeded because the orbit was larger than expected. At about 06:30 GMT, after confirming that Explorer 1 was indeed in orbit, a news conference was held in the Great Hall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. to announce it to the world.
The original expected lifetime of the satellite before orbital decay was three years.Mercury batteries powered the high-power transmitter for 31 days and the low-power transmitter for 105 days. Explorer 1 stopped transmission of data on 23 May 1958 when its batteries died, but remained in orbit for more than 12 years. It reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on 31 March 1970 after more than 58,000 orbits.
Explorer 1 changed rotation axis after launch. The elongated body of the spacecraft had been designed to spin about its long (least-inertia) axis but refused to do so, and instead started precessing due to energy dissipation from flexible structural elements. Later it was understood that on general grounds, the body ends up in the spin state that minimizes the kineticrotational energy for a fixed angular momentum (this being the maximal-inertia axis). This motivated the first further development of the Eulerian theory of rigid body dynamics after nearly 200 years — to address this kind of momentum-preserving energy dissipation.
Sometimes the instrumentation reported the expected cosmic ray count (approximately 30 counts per second) but other times it would show a peculiar zero counts per second. The University of Iowa (under James Van Allen) observed that all of the zero counts per second reports were from an altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,200 mi) over South America, while passes at 500 km (310 mi) would show the expected level of cosmic rays. Later, after Explorer 3, it was concluded that the original Geiger counter had been overwhelmed ("saturated") by strong radiation coming from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by the Earth's magnetic field. This belt of charged particles is now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The discovery was considered to be one of the outstanding discoveries of the International Geophysical Year (IGY).
The acoustic micrometeorite detector detected 145 impacts of cosmic dust in 78,750 seconds. This calculates to an average impact rate of 8.0×10−3 impacts m−2 s−1 over the twelve-day period (29 impacts per hour per square meter).
Explorer 1 was the first of the long-running Explorer program. Four follow-up satellites of the Explorer series were launched by the Juno I rocket in 1958, of these, Explorer 3 and 4 were successful, while Explorer 2 and 5 failed to reach orbit. The final flight of the Juno I booster, the satellite Beacon-1, also failed. The Juno I vehicle was replaced by the Juno II in 1959.
A follow-up to the first mission, Explorer-1 [PRIME], was successfully launched aboard a Delta II launch vehicle in late October 2011. The PRIME was built using modern satellite construction techniques. The orbiting satellite was a backup, because the initial Explorer-1 PRIME, launched on 4 March 2011, did not reach orbit due to a launch vehicle failure.
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Payloads are separated by bullets ( · ), launches by pipes ( | ). Crewed flights are indicated in bold text. Uncatalogued launch failures are listed in italics. Payloads deployed from other spacecraft are denoted in brackets.