Today in 1965, the launch of what is the oldest functioning object in Earth orbit: Lincoln Calibration Sphere 1.

To use the term “functioning” with this thing is maybe a little misleading.

When we think of satellites, we think of impossibly high tech devices that can take really hi definition images of the world below, or study galaxies that are light years away, or beam signals from continent to continent.

And the Lincoln Calibration Sphere doesn’t do any of that.

It technically doesn’t do anything at all.

It’s a hollow metal sphere, a little over a meter in diameter, and it just hangs out in orbit.

It’s known as a passive satellite.

So why did NASA go to all the trouble to launch it?

The clue is in the name.

The Lincoln Calibration Sphere is for calibration.

Specifically, calibrating radar systems.

Just as they can calibrate a scale by weighing an object with a known mass, scientists can check whether their radar apparatus is in good working order by checking whether it recognizes LCS-1 as a metal ball in space.

By the way, because it’s a sphere, the radar waves can hit it no matter which way it’s spinning and the results will be the same.

And that makes all kinds of studies possible.

Scientists were able to start making useful measurements of the moon a year after LCS-1 launched, with well calibrated instruments.

There is also an LCS-4.

There were also supposed to be numbers two and three but they didn’t make it to space.

The ones that are up there will be there a while.

LCS-4 should last at least another 75 years.

I’ve read estimates that LCS-1, which was supposed to work for like five years, could stay up there for 30,000 years!

Tomorrow in Burlington, North Carolina, the start of the annual Carousel Festival.

It’s named for a carousel that was hand-carved and hand-painted when it was built more than a century ago.

It just finished a big restoration and now it’s ready for riders.

The Oldest Functioning Satellite (Amusing Planet)

32nd Annual Burlington Carousel Festival

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Photo by George Vnoucek via Flickr/Creative Commons