A Science Voice from New Zealand

The Adventure of Space

This week I’ve been editing footage of Jay O’Callahan’s fascinating “Forged in the Stars” story from ScienceTeller 2011. “Forged in the Stars” is a story that encompasses the history of NASA’s space voyages, from the Apollo Moon Missions in the sixties to the present day.

Jay O'Callahan

Listening to Jay’s story makes you realize that as we scurry about our busy Earth-bound lives, most of us seldom take the time to gaze into the vastness of space, to reflect on the incomprehensible mystery of the universe and to think of the astonishing feats of exploration that have opened up our understanding of it.

As I write, the two Voyager probes, launched in 1977, are well into the fourth decade of their lonely sojourns across the solar system, now dutifully reporting from far beyond Pluto, where the influence of the Sun’s powerful magnetic field and solar winds finally begins to falter. And I thought my 1978 Ford Cortina was doing well to still be on the road! Ahead of the Voyager probes lies true space – the vast emptiness between star systems. Once they escape the heliosphere (which may be in a few months or a few years), we will for the first time be able to make physical observations of the universe and its physics, free from the Sun’s raging influence.

NASA Artist’s impression of one of the Voyager probes

I vividly remember opening a National Geographic back in 2004 and being astonished at the incredible images being gathered from the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. There in glossy color was a real alien landscape – a muddy brown sky and barren rocky ground that could have been one of Earth’s deserts – except that it was not even on this planet. The rovers were only expected to last a few months, but six years later Opportunity is still trundling its rocky way across Mars, still teaching us more and more. It has now travelled 34 kilometers across the planet and lasted 30 times longer than it was expected to. (Spirit got bogged in sand in 2009 and finally became unresponsive last year.)

Meanwhile, just a couple of weeks ago, a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the next generation of Martian explorer. The Curiosity rover is five times larger then Spirit and Opportunity and carries ten times more instruments. It’s scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012 and will begin assessing the planet for evidence of past or present life. Within the next two decades it is possible we will witness a manned mission to Mars and part of Curiosity’s job is to help prepare the way for that.

One of the first panoramic colour images collected by Mars Rover Spirit, 2004

In March of 2011, the Messenger spacecraft successfully locked into orbit around Mercury – the first space probe to do so and in August, the Juno spacecraft was sent winging its way to Jupiter, around which it is planned to go into orbit in 2016.

Meanwhile, transmitting orbiters are in place around the Sun, Venus, Mars, Earth’s moon and Saturn and in 2015 the New Horizon will fly past Pluto and into the Kuiper belt – the huge, shadowy ring of asteroids that marks the outer fringes of our solar system.

Then of course, there are the failures – usually stunningly expensive ones; an inevitable reality of space exploration that Jay O’Callahan alluded to in his ScienceTeller SCITED talk. Japan’s PLANET-C probe was unsuccessful last year in going into orbit around Venus and instead headed off on an unplanned detour around the Sun. Mission controllers will now have to wait another six years before trying again. And in 2011 the ambitious Russian probe Phobos-Grunt, which had been intended to land on the Martian moon Phobos and then return to Earth with rock samples, failed to escape Earth’s orbit. Controllers have now lost contact with the spacecraft and it’s expected to crash to Earth again in January.

We live in exciting times – the exploration of space is a fast-paced action adventure; unfolding before our eyes.

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