Early artificial satellites were tracked by radio and visually by amateurs, scientists and military personnel for various reasons including fun and improving the understanding of orbital dynamics including Earth's oblateness or J2 and atmospheric drag.

Question: When and what was the first successful photograph of an orbital spacecraft from Earth taken? What was the photographed spacecraft, and who (or at least which organization if any) took it?

An example of an early photograph of a spacecraft from Earth is given below, but I don't know if this is the first.

This question was inspired by the segment in the vintage video "SCIENCE IN SPACE" EARLY 1960s SPACE EXPLORATION FILM SPUTNIK & EXPLORER VANGUARD ROCKET 12494 linked below, from the Periscope Film collection, from 12:06 to 14:16.

Some of them can be seen by the naked eye or with binoculars, but only around twilight. However scientists have developed systems far more powerful and precise than the eye to follow space laboratories and to communicate with them.

Special radio devices track a satellite by measuring the direction from which its radio signals come. From successive angles of direction the satellite’s orbit can be computed. Amateur radio operators also pick up and report the satellite signals. Radio tracking networks stretch around the world.

Another international network consists of optical observation stations, manned by volunteer teams engaged in Operation Moon Watch. Using Telescopes, these observers are especially helpful in finding a newly-launched satellite, and in following a dying satellite in its final variable course. Each observer is assigned his own sector of sky. Upon sighting the satellite, the observer such as this member of a Philippine team calls out; “In. Time. Out.”

A series of Moon watch reports coordinated with a recorded time signal helps in plotting the path of the satellite. Photographed by a Moon watch observer in Schenectady New York, this actual fast motion shot shows the tumbling third stage rocket of Sputnik 1 crossing the sky in front of the Moon.

Screen shot of SCIENCE IN SPACE" EARLY 1960s SPACE EXPLORATION FILM SPUTNIK & EXPLORER VANGUARD ROCKET 12494 showing Sputnik 1's tumbling third stage rocket body photographed from Earth


2 Answers 2


Still looking, but here is a partial for now:

TL;DR: October 9th appears to be the date!

A Canadian took the first photograph of Sputnik from North America on October 9th.

Also on October 9th, Australian newspaper The Age, publishes a photo from the night before, claiming it is the satellite. If so, it might well count as the first from that side of the world.


An observatory in Canada lays claim to the first North American photographs of the Sputnik I satellite:

In October, 1957, the Newbrook Observatory bore witness to one of the seminal moments of the twentieth century. On October 4, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) astounded the world by announcing the successful launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to be sent into space. Less than a week later, Art Griffen, resident scientist at the Newbrook Observatory, took the first North American photograph of Sputnik, confirming the Russians' claim.


I note it says 'North American' which leaves space for somewhere else to claim the first ever, anywhere, photograph, perhaps.

enter image description here


Shortly after the launch, Griffin was asked by an American official to mark the satellite as it passed over the observatory, perhaps to confirm that the Soviets had, in fact, beat the Americans to the punch. In the early morning hours of October 9, 1957, Griffin caught sight of a thin beam of light that he thought could represent the flight of Sputnik I through the upper atmosphere.



The Age - Oct 9, 1957

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Bright Spectacle in Clear Sky

THE Soviet earth-satellite and part of the rocket which placed it in orbit provided another brilliant spectacle in the sky over Melbourne last night.

Thousands of people at widely scattered places from Tasmania to Brisbane followed the path of the main object across a clear sky for about four minutes. Leading physicists Dr. F. Jacks and Dr. V. D. Hopper each saw the second object and expect the Russian satellites will appear at the same time tonight--about 7.38.

Switchboards of newspapers and radio stations were flooded with calls many of them from people who saw a second, dimmer object following the course of the other on a slightly different course a few minutes later. The federal secretary of the Wireless Institute of Australia (Mr. L. D. Bowie) received reports of sightings magnificent radio amateurs in four eastern states. Reports came from widely separated places including Brisbane, Newcastle, Wagga, Coolamon, Wyong, Yallourn, Horsham, Ballarat, Bright and Ulverstone in Tasmania. Mr. Bowle said the radio signals from the satellite seemed to have broken down about 4.54 p.m., when they stopped abruptly. Radio amateurs believed that if the satellite was still transmitting, it had changed to a different frequency.

Dr. Jacka, who is Chief Physicist of the Department of External Affairs Antarctic Division, said he saw the first object rise silently east of south at 7.38 and followed it until it disappeared in the north. The second object rose in about the same position, but was much fainter and proceeded more to the west. Dr. Jacka said Russian statements about the rocket being larger than the satellite seemed to indicate that the first, brighter object was the rocket, and the second object the satellite. The difference in apparent orbit between the two objects was due to the which Earth's rotation, would cause an appreciable difference in only a few minutes.

Dr. Hopper, Reader in Physics Physics at Melbourne said he followed both objects with a theodolite and took readings of their azimuth and elevation. The second object appeared about four minutes after the first, and was slightly reddish in appearance. It disappeared when roughly overhead.

The time lag between the two objects tonight was likely to be slightly greater.



enter image description here

This is the first official photograph of the Soviet Satellite Rocket (note: not the satellite), using the IGY satellite tracking camera at South Pasadena, California at 5:06 a.m. PST, October 17, 1957 by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory personnel. The rocket appears in the lower part of the photograph.


The rocket stages were photographed more than the satellite:

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Although not in orbit by then, LIFE photographer Robert W. Kelley captured this, with a possible incorrect date (February), from Montreal, Canada. LIFE and other magazines stationed photographers around the world in anticipation of catching a glimpse of the satellite on film.

The following is also attributed to him:

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Video footage below claims to be of the actual satellite:


NBC News Archives Clips
Date created:   13 October, 1957

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Again, rocket stage photograph:

Schenectady Gazette - Oct 15th 1957

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7th October, Moonwatch still looking for satellite:

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  • $\begingroup$ If October 9, 1957 is the answer to the question, perhaps also put it as a tl;dr at the begining? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Sep 25, 2022 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, edited it. TBH I was still dangling to see if I could drag anything out of Russia, since they launched it ... but quite difficult to find. I found the Australia article because the Russians were looking at western media reports of sightings of their satellite. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2022 at 1:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ different but somewhat related: Why did Jodrell Bank assist the Soviet Union to collect data from their spacecraft in the mid 1960's? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Sep 25, 2022 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ That was a good read. Reminds me of an article i found announcing data being fed into a US$2m supercomputer to track sputnik1's orbit, only for the following days article to read: 'Computer says no' $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2022 at 2:13

Probably within a week of the first launch at the very latest, but I can't find an explicit report.

North American observation stations, including telescopes cameras, were alerted as soon as Sputnik I was launched on 4 October 1957; a predicted pass on 5 October was lost due to cloud and then due to orbital timing, the first confirmed visual sighting was not until 10 October. (Orbital Data and Preliminary Analyses of Satellites 1957 Alpha and 1957 Beta, Whipple et al, 1957)

It is not explicitly stated in that source when the first US photographs were made, but it is strongly implied to be soon after those first visual sightings.

These are latest dates however - I strongly suspect in that first week a photograph was taken, at least of the more easily observable booster stage, from somewhere in the southern hemisphere (which seems to have had better lighting conditions at that point) or from a Soviet tracking station.

The first observation reported by the Western 'Moonwatch' program was from Australia on 8 October (details) so that gives a possible earliest date - but not sure if it would have been visible earlier from within the USSR. (I was able to find a newspaper reference from 8 October that reported sightings in Finland "at dawn", so quite possibly it was visible to Soviet observers as well)

Incidentally, that section has a long tranche of reported sightings up to 1 Dec with locations, and if you worked through it looking for Schenectady it might well be possible to find the exact observation linked to this photograph.

A quick skim spots sightings on 17/10 and 26/11. On 26/11, the sighting was just before midnight UTC, so ~7pm Eastern. The moon was visible then (data for Brooklyn, but close enough). On 17/10, the sighting was at ~1000UTC, ~5am Eastern, and again would have been visible, in a similar phase. So maybe not much to go on there...

The same report reproduces a photograph taken on 23 October, which gives an absolute latest date, but does not indicate it is 'the first' or anything other than a representative example.


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