Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, was launched by the USSR on October 4th 1957, straight into the history books. It was launched from what is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome into a low orbit, and transmitted simple radio signals (basically just beeps) back down to anyone who cared to listen (plenty did, including Jodrell Bank, just up the road) as it orbited the Earth every 96 minutes. This continued for 26 days, after which the batteries were flat. About eight weeks later Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was burned to a crisp.
The original Soviet plan had been for a much larger satellite, known by the working name Object D. Unfortunately though, the number one priority of the Soviet space agency at that time was not to draw gasps of astonishment from the world’s scientists with a complex marvel, bristling with useful experiments, but to fling any old thing up there as long as it was before the Americans. So they went for the simplest shape (a 2-foot wide sphere with 4 antennae sticking out the back) and downsized to an easily launchable 83kg weight. Object D wasn’t forgotten though, and eventually became Sputnik 3.
Sputnik 1, being quite diminutive, would have been hard to spot from down here, but fortunately it was part of a convoy of three objects. The actual satellite itself was sandwiched between the nose cone that had protected it before separation, and the much larger (and therefore much brighter) second stage rocket booster.
Also today, asteroid 50 Virginia was discovered by James Ferguson in 1857 from Washington DC. It may have been named after the Roman noblewoman Verginia, but then again it may not. The jury is still out.
1885 – Discovery of asteroid 251 Sophia by Johann Palisa, and named after the wife of Hugo von Seeliger, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Munich.
1959 – Launch of Luna 3, the first mission to photograph the far side of the Moon.
Other asteroid discoveries today include 650 Amalasuntha (queen of the Ostragoths) and 651 Antikleia (mother of Odysseus), both spotted on October 4th 1907 by prolific asteroid hunter August Kopff of Heidelberg.