[FPSPACE] First Russian use of word спутник to Describe Satellite

Bart Hendrickx bhen at telenet.be
Wed Jul 6 16:17:58 EDT 2016

The original meaning of the word in Russian was “co-traveller” and later it began to be used for natural satellites orbiting planets and eventually for artificial satellites. There is some discussion on the ethymology of the word on this Russian language forum :


http://russian.stackexchange.com/questions/2446/ <http://russian.stackexchange.com/questions/2446/Спутники-естественные-и-искусственные> Спутники-естественные-и-искусственные


“Sputnik” in the meaning “natural satellite” may have been introduced in the Russian language by the Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov in the 18th century. Lomonosov used the word in the translation of a German astronomical article in 1744.


“Sputnik” in the meaning “artificial satellite” was probably first used by Tsiolkovskiy. He uses the word in a book he wrote in 1911 and in a book written in 1923 he uses the combination “artificial satellite of the Earth” (iskusstvennyy sputnik zemli), which later became common in Russian, even before the beginning of the space age. “Iskusstvenny sputnik zemli” is also how the first satellite was referred to in the TASS launch announcement on 4 October 1957. However, it was written with lower case letters and not used as a proper name.  Whereas the word “sputnik” was new to most people in the West, it had been around in the Russian language for a long time (in the meanings “co-traveller” and “natural satellite”) and was not intended to be used as a proper name for the satellite. Retrospectively, the first three satellites were named Sputnik-1, Sputnik-2 and Sputnik-3 in the West, but that is not how they were announced by the Soviet Union at the time.


Bart Hendrickx




From: FPSPACE [mailto:fpspace-bounces at mail.friends-partners.org] On Behalf Of jameseoberg at comcast.net
Sent: woensdag 6 juli 2016 13:49
To: fpspace
Subject: [FPSPACE] First Russian use of word спутник to Describe Satellite



As the letters below indicate, I'm helping a KSC tour guide answer an

interesting historical question -- the first Russian use of 'sputnik' to

describe an artificial satellite. I'm presuming it was Tsiolkovskiy, does

anyone know of any earlier references in Russian?




From: "Stephen C. Smith" < <mailto:wordsmithfl at gmail.com> wordsmithfl at gmail.com>
To:  <mailto:jameseoberg at comcast.net> jameseoberg at comcast.net
Sent: Wednesday, July 6, 2016 5:32:04 AM
Subject: RE: Use of спутник to Describe Satellite


Thank you, I appreciate it … Doing further research, I found that Johannes Kepler apparently coined the word “satellite” based on the Latin word satelles, meaning "one who escorts or follows after an important person."  So my guess is Tsiolkovsky may have used спутник because it has a similar meaning in Russian.  But it could pre-date him as well, if Kepler used that meaning in the 1600s.  I suppose I’d have to track down any Russian astronomers who pre-dated Tsiolkovsky.


The distinction, of course, is that Kepler and his successors were referring to a natural satellite.  So I’m looking for the first use of the phrase to describe an artificial satellite.





From:  <mailto:jameseoberg at comcast.net> jameseoberg at comcast.net [ <mailto:jameseoberg at comcast.net> mailto:jameseoberg at comcast.net] 
Sent: Tuesday, July 5, 2016 10:16 PM
To: Stephen C. Smith
Subject: Re: Use of спутник to Describe Satellite


interesting question, with your permission i'll pass it around.... 



From: "Stephen C. Smith" <wordsmithfl at gmail.com>
To: jameseoberg at comcast.net
Sent: Tuesday, July 5, 2016 7:28:21 PM
Subject: Use of спутник to Describe Satellite


Mr. Oberg, my name is Stephen Smith.  I work as a lecturer and tour guide at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


I’m hoping you might be able to answer a question for me, given your mastery of Russian language and space history.


I studied some Russian in college decades ago.  I know the word спутник translates as “satellite,” but has other meanings, such as a travelling companion.  I found through research that Sergei Korolev’s team proposed to launch a Простейший спутник, or “simplest satellite,” which became Sputnik 1.

My question is, do you know when and how in the Russian language спутник came to be used to describe an artificial satellite?


I’ve found some references implying that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky may have suggested using the word for an artificial satellite, but I haven’t found an authoritative source to confirm that, which you would be.


Thank you in advance,





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