San Marco 1, the first Italian satellite

San Marco 1, also known as San Marco A, the first Italian satellite, was launched by an Italian crew using an American Scout rocket (the Scout family of rockets were American launch vehicles designed to place small satellites into orbit around the Earth; the Scout multistage rocket was the first, and for a long time, the only, orbital launch vehicle to be entirely composed of solid fuel stages) from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, on December 15, 1964.

Built in-house by the Commissione per le Ricerche Spaziali (CRS), the Italian Space Research Commission, on behalf of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), the Italian National Research Council, the first Italian artificial satellite, named in honour of Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of Venice (often depicted as aiding Venetian sailors), was the first of five as part of the U.S.-Italian San Marco program.

The primary mission of the San Marco series was to conduct ionospheric (upper-atmosphere) research. As a test satellite, San Marco 1 contained relatively few experiments: “Atmosphere”, an Ion probe, and “Electron-content Beacon”, a radio transmitter to study ionospheric effects on long-range radio communication. The satellite destructively re-entered the atmosphere on September 13, 1965.

The San Marco program

The San Marco program was an Italian satellite launch program conducted between the early 1960s and the late 1980s. The project resulted in the launch of the first Italian-built satellite, San Marco 1, on December 15, 1964. Italy thus became the third country in the world to operate its own satellite, after the Soviet Union and the United States of America. In total, five satellites were launched during the program, all using American Scout rockets. The first flew from Wallops Flight Facility, the following other from the Broglio Space Center.

In February 1961, Luigi Broglio, an Italian aerospace engineer known as “the Italian von Braun”, introduced the idea to Amintore Fanfani, the Prime Minister of Italy, that the country should pursue a satellite research program of its own, launched from its own facility. In that same year, at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in Florence, Luigi Broglio had discussions with some NASA officials present and proposed the idea of the US supplying launchers and training Italian ground crews to fire them for this effort.

The San Marco program was approved in October 1961. The plan was for the U.S. to provide the Scout rockets and train the Italian ground crew, while Italy would develop the satellites and provide the launch pad.

The Italian oil company Eni provided the San Marco platform, a mobile jackup barge that could be towed to an equatorial location, which when combined with an easterly firing provides the most energetically favourable launch.

San Marco 1, the first Italian satellite

In 1961, Italy, led by Amintore Fanfani, the Prime Minister of Italy approved a plan for the development of an indigenous satellite research program that had earlier been proposed by the Commissione per le Ricerche Spaziali (CRS).

At the time, only the Soviet Union and the United States of America had launched spacecraft into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Italy lacked a suitable launcher and crews trained in firing orbital rockets. As a result, a cooperative plan was developed with the newly formed American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which would provide the rockets and the launch crew training for Italians to operate them.

The spacecraft was built by members of the Commissione per le Ricerche Spaziali (CRS), a group of distinguished Italian scientists and engineers including Edoardo Amaldi (September 5, 1908 – December 5, 1989), cofounder of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO).

The mission was principally a test-flight of a real satellite to gain experience before launches from Italy’s own San Marco platform began, a jackup barge used as an offshore launch pad for the main phase of the project, the last of three phases of the project.

The Luigi Broglio Space Center (BSC)

The Luigi Broglio Space Center (BSC), initially known as the San Marco Equatorial Range, is an Italian-owned spaceport near Malindi, Kenya, named after its founder and Italian space pioneer Luigi Broglio. Developed in the 1960s through a partnership between the Sapienza University of Rome and NASA, the Broglio Space Center, formerly an oil platform located on the coastal sublittoral of Kenya, served from 1967 to 1988 as a spaceport for the launch of both Italian and international satellites.

The centre comprises a main offshore launch site, known as the San Marco platform, as well as two secondary control platforms and a communications ground station on the mainland. Launches from the platform were controlled from the Santa Rita platform, a second former oil platform located southeast of the San Marco platform. While the ground station is still in use for satellite communications, the BSC is not currently used as a launch site.

Luigi Broglio

Luigi Broglio (November 11, 1911 – January 14, 2001) was an Italian aerospace engineer. Known as “the Italian von Braun” he is best known as the architect of the San Marco program which led Italy to be the third country in the world to build and operate its own satellite. The facility he conceived, originally the San Marco Equatorial Range, is now named in his honour as well as an asteroid.

San Marco 2

San Marco 2, launched on April 26, 1967, was a 66-centimetre-diameter spherical satellite with two experiments, one designed to make direct measurements of air density below three hundred and fifty kilometres, and the other an ionospheric beacon experiment developed to observe electron content between the Earth and the satellite. The spherical shape of the spacecraft was important to the air density experiment in that it provided a constant satellite cross section to the decelerating effects of the air. This simplified data interpretation and eliminated the need for satellite attitude control. A 5-metre dipole antenna was extended along the spin axis only when the beacon experiment was turned on.

The satellite had black and white longitudinal sections painted on its surface for thermal control. The satellite mission was to study density and its small-scale variations and to study equatorial electron density irregularities and ducted radio propagation above two hundred kilometres. The satellite was powered by four battery packs, and rough measures of satellite attitude were provided by four solar cell sensors. The satellite performed as expected until August 5, 1967. By August 14, power had decreased so that satellite command was no longer possible. Re-entry occurred on October 19 1967.