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Saturday, 16 July 2016

What was the first object into space?

There is a story that, in 1956, a nuclear bomb test in an underground vault blew the vault door clear into space. It’s almost certainly a myth - even if the door were going fast enough, the atmosphere would have slowed it down, and even melted it, like a reversed meteor.

There are worse uses for a nuclear omb though... like, actually aiming them at people....

But it got me wondering: Did anything from Earth reach space, intentionally or not, before the USSR launched Sputnik 1?

The Nazi V2 missiles spring immediately to mind: They reached up to 108 km high, which is beyond the accepted modern boundary of space. Before that... it seems fairly sure that no human built object ever got into space - but that’ not quite the same as nothing.....

Of all the violent natural events planet Earth sees, an asteroid impact is right up there. Ironically, some are so big  they throw things back into space: Around the edge of a gigantic asteroid impact is a ring called the spallation zone, where the shockwave movng through the ground returns to the surface and blasts the surface into into space. It’s estimated that, via this spectacular launch method, millions of tons of Earth rocks have flown to the Moon, and some have even reached Mars.

Above: This is an iron meteorite on the surface of Mars - iron meteorites form in the cores of geologically active worlds (that then get blown to pieces by gigantic impacts) so we know ths kind of thing does happen. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

The reverse is also true: We have chunks of rock here on Earth that were blown free from Mars and the Moon by giant impacts, and have landed here on Earth.

So are these the first thing from Earth to fly through space…?


4 Billion years ago the biggest impact in Earth's history happened: A protoplanet called Theia came barrelling out of deep space, and the blast melted the entire Earth, pole to pole, crust to core. The molten debris from the blast was flung into orbit... where it eventually coalesced into the Moon.

Above: A computer simulation of the impact that formed the Moon...

So, if you want to be really, really, picky: The first object ever to fly from Earth into space.... was the Moon.

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