Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Erik’s top 6 robotic space missions (ongoing and planned)

For those of you who haven’t heard, the space shuttle is retiring. The Museum of Flight is working to get one of them in Seattle by the way. NASA has no replacement plan after they scraped the Constellation program that would have developed a new manned space vehicle. NASA is basically privatizing manned space exploration and many of their engineers are moving into private sector jobs.

To be honest I am mixed on these developments. After reading Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanely Robinson, I am wary of corporate control of space but it also seemed to produce results. Companies like SpaceX are planning impressive new vehicles and Richard Branson will sell you a ticket on Virgin Galaxy if you happen to have $200,000 lying around. One could make the argument that this will only further make space the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful, but lets face it, no matter what we do 99.99% of will be staying on Earth.

So think what you will about the future of manned space flight. In my opinion the whole enterprise is futile until we have the extra resources to start a self sustaining colony on Mars that volunteers take a one-way trip to reach.

But as with many things in the modern world, the answer to the space exploration question is to use Robots. NASA and its partners including the European Space Agency and JAXA are planning and have executed some awesome robotic missions to explore the solar system. Here is my top 6 in no particular order:

1. The Japanese mission to land on an asteroid and send back a sample.

This is super impressive. The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa took a seven year trip to gather a sample of an asteroid. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, the sample was successfully returned to earth in 2010 and is now being studied. Asteroid mining here we come!

2. Mars Spirit and Opportunity Rovers

This mission was supposed to last 90 days. Opportunity has been going for 8 years. That is good bang for your buck. Enough said.

3. Solar Sail

This one cracks me up. NASA thought that their design for a solar sail powered space craft had failed. It didn’t unfurl. Then after weeks of waiting, the sail spontaneously unfurled for reasons they don’t understand. Ever had a problem with an electronic device, try turning it off and leaving it alone for a while then it magically works again? I guess that happens to NASA too.

4. The planned mission to the Kraken Mare on Titan.

This is probably my favorite. So did you know that Saturn’s moon of Titan has a liquid hydrocarbon ocean? Yeah thats right, they call it the Kraken Mare. Awesome name. NASA is considering sending a mission to Titan that would land in that ocean and float around until it finds something. If complex life exists anywhere else in the solar system, there is a good chance it is on Titan.

Titan and the whole Saturnian system is incredibly fascinating. There is Enceladus, a frozen moon with a seismically active core that spews liquid water into space, Mimas that looks a lot like the Death Star and probably should have been destroyed by an impact large enough to create that crater, and Iapetus that has a massive equatorial ridge that we can’t explain either. So thanks to the Cassini Spacecraft for all the amazing work you have done teaching us about Saturn!

5. Missions to Phobos.

The Russians are currently planning to launch a sample return mission to Phobos, Mars’ largest moon. Both of Mars’ moons are kind of weird. They aren’t round and scientists can't decide if they are captured asteroids or chunks of Mars that got blown off by a huge impact. The really cool thing about this mission is that it will target the Phobos Monolith. There is a huge squarish looking rock that sticks off the side of this potato shaped moon 90 meters into space. No one is really sure what it is, but Buzz Aldrin thinks we really need to go check it out. The most radical theories about Phobos and Demos claim that they were used as space stations for a Martian civilization that moved them to their current orbits to save energy when going in and out of Mars’ gravity well. Obviously this is a little far fetched, but we don’t really know enough about the Red Planet to say for sure.

6. New Horizons mission to pluto.

This is first object humanity has ever built to be launched on a direct solar system escape trajectory. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto (not a planet) in 2015 and then begins investigating the Kuiper belt and leaves the solar system around 2029.

So, which is your favorite? Any awesome ones that I forgot or maybe haven’t heard about? Let me know!

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