|Country/ies of origin||United States|
Beacon was one of America's first satellite programs. A balloon satellite, its objective was to study atmospheric density at its orbital altitude and to be the first United States satellite visible to the naked eye. Booster problems caused both orbital attempts to end in failure.
Beacon was an International Geophysical Year (IGY) satellite program developed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Space Vehicle Group at Langley under aeronautical engineer William James O'Sullivan, Jr. O'Sullivan held the belief that measuring the air density at orbital altitudes would be of critical importance to a space agency and that a simple balloon satellite, several meters in diameter, would be well suited to the task as their relatively large size and low mass make them especially sensitive to air drag effects. After the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, a high priority was placed on orbiting an American satellite that would be visible from the ground. O'Sullivan's balloon satellite would accomplish that purpose, as, once in orbit, it would be as bright as a third or fourth magnitude star, enabling easy optical and photographic tracking. This brightness led to the satellite being called "Beacon."
Beacon was an uninstrumented, inflatable 3.66 meter (12 ft) diameter sphere made of laminated mylar polyester film, 25 micrometers in thickness, and coated on both sides with an 11 micrometer-thick layer of aluminum foil. Before inflation, it folded into a cylindrical package with a mass of 4.2 kg (9.26 lbs). The package was installed into the bottom of the stainless steel payload casing mounted at the top of its rocket. An ejection piston device with a 15-pound spring would push the payload casing away from the motor after burnout. Within the casing was a connecting valve, bellows, a pressurizing nitrogen bottle, and a squib-actuated valve to inflate the sphere. Above this was the transmitter operating on the IGY standard frequency of 108.03 MHz, powered by 8 mercury batteries.
Beacon 1 (often called "Explorer 6") was launched on October 24, 1958, at 3:21 am UTC by a Juno 1 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 5 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket fell apart in mid-flight: at 112 seconds after launch, the Beacon payload broke away from the vehicle; stages 2 and 3 broke off at 149.9 seconds. The payload fell into the Atlantic Ocean 424 seconds after launch. Total flight time for the first stage was 526 seconds. This launch marked the final flight of the Juno 1 rocket.
After a successful suborbital test on January 21, 1959 that lofted a Beacon to 125km in altitude, Beacon 2 was launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 26 on August 15, 1959, at 00:31:00.7 UT on a three-staged Juno 2 (the booster normally comprised four stages; a fourth stage was not required as Beacon 2 would return data on air density from a low orbit.) Headed northeast for orbit on a 48 degree azimuth, the rocket ran into trouble three minutes into the flight, at about the time of first stage cutoff. A series of tracking flares was to be ejected from the guidance. Only the first one was observed to have fired. The guidance compartment, now separated from the first stage, depressurized 23 seconds later, probably from ignition of the remaining tracking flares within the compartment. The guidance and control system then failed, causing the upper stages to fire in the wrong direction, and Beacon 2 fell short of orbit.
Though Beacon never successfully orbited, it did play an important role in the establishment of NACA's successor agency, NASA. On April 22, 1958, before the House Select Committee on Science and Astronautics, NACA Director Hugh Dryden explained, among many other things, how large aluminized balloons could be inflated in orbit and used for communication tests. O'Sullivan elaborated on this point, impressing the Congressmen by inflating a full-size Beacon satellite and asserting that much larger balloon spacecraft could easily be developed.
A model of the Beacon package installed in the final stage of a Juno rocket can be found at the National Air and Space Museum.
|Name||Launch date||Launch vehicle|
|Beacon Test 1||April 24, 1958||Nike-Cajun|
|Beacon Test 1R||April 25, 1958||Nike-Cajun|
|Beacon Test 2||May 25, 1958||Nike-Cajun|
|Beacon Test 3||September 11, 1958||Nike-Cajun|
|Beacon 1||October 24, 1958 (failed launch)||Juno 1|
|Beacon Test 4||January 21, 1959||Nike-Cajun|
|Beacon 2||August 15, 1959 (failed launch)||Juno 2|