Space exploration has been a great passion of mine ever since I was a youngster. Looking beyond the confines of our tiny planet to understand distant planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole has remained a source of endless fascination for me. I was lucky to be born at the dawn of the space age and I’m old enough to remember the first manned space flight, which was followed a few years later by the moon landings.
I am equally excited by the tremendous discoveries made during unmanned robotic missions. Twenty twelve marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful mission to another planet – the Mariner 2 flyby of Venus in 1962. It made the startling discovery that the surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead. This was followed by the first successful flyby of Mars, by Mariner 4 in 1965.
Since then, an armada of spacecraft has explored virtually every planet and moon in the solar system, as well as comets and asteroids. Vessels are currently orbiting the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn, while another is on its way to Jupiter. The New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at Pluto, which is now classified as a dwarf planet, in 2015. Voyager 2 was launched in 1977 and conducted a “grand tour” of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It is now exploring the region known as the heliosphere, the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space. A radio signal from Voyager 2 takes 13 hours, 45 minutes to reach Earth, after travelling 14.8 billion kilometres.
A whole a series of instruments have been sent beyond the distortions of the earth’s atmosphere to take beautiful pictures and gather scientific data on distant stars and galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope is the most famous example. These instruments have greatly expanded our knowledge of the solar system, the stars of our galaxy, the universe as a whole, and our place in it. They are paving the way for a greater human presence in space. This is the golden age of space exploration and it is wonderful to be alive at time when exciting new discoveries are being made at an accelerating rate. Today’s young people will likely be alive to witness the first manned mission to Mars.
I’ll have more to say about these exciting spacecraft and their discoveries in future posts, including the Mars Science Laboratory. It was given the more familiar name “Curiosity” by Clara Ma, a twelve-year-old girl who won a naming contest organized by NASA. Weighing nearly one metric ton and as big as a small car, Curiosity is by far the most complex vessel ever to land on another planet. Last month, I had the pleasure of attending an event called Planetfest in Pasadena, CA. It was held near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where Curiosity was built, and several engineers and scientists from the JPL gave talks about the mission both before and during the landing.
I’ll have more to say about my experience at Planetfest and Curiosity in my next post. In the meantime, be sure to watch the dramatic video entitled “The Seven Minutes of Terror”, which explains the complicated sequence of steps for landing Curiosity on Mars. The spacecraft has now safely landed on the surface for Mars and is slowly making its way to a site called Glenelg. The fact that this audacious and difficult landing was executed flawlessly is a tribute to the hard work and attention to detail of the engineers who built it. It shows that great things can be accomplished when people set their minds to it. As the closing title of the video states: Dare Mighty Things.
Part of Lorne's Lens on Space