While such feats seem routine today, the skill of Western spacecraft
designers was underscored recently when a Russian probe destined for
Mars failed. The Russian space agency had invested an estimated $170
million and a good bit of its reputation in the success of its
Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Aiming for the Martian moon Phobos, the probe
never made it out of Earth orbit when an engine designed to push it on
its way to Mars failed to ignite. The probe crashed into the Pacific
Ocean in January.
Of course, the Americans, too, have made their
share of mistakes. The U.S. Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in 1999
because engineers had used two measurement scales for the navigation
data. JPL used the metric scale for its calculations; contractor
Lockheed Martin Astronautics provided acceleration data in inches,
feet and pounds. Nobody realized the mistake until after launch. It has
not been repeated since.
The most ambitious science probe ever
to be sent to a planet’s surface is to the Red Planet. The Mars Science
Laboratory landed at Gale Crater in August using a risky new sky crane
technique. The lander, dubbed Curiosity, is powered by a plutonium power
source that is expected to last about 687 Earth days. Given the history
of earlier probes like Voyager and Opportunity, it’s safe to say
Curiosity’s life span could be much longer than expected.
planetary missions represent humankind’s first attempt to understand the
formation of our solar system. It’s hoped they will help explain how a
rocky, ocean-covered planet situated about 93 million miles from its sun
Once we understand that, we can begin looking for neighbors in nearby solar systems.
If our species manages to survive, one day in the very distant future, we may manage to make contact.
Sagan, the Cornell University astrophysicist and cosmologist who helped
conceive the Voyager program, famously said: “If we are alone in the
Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.”
The electronics revolution of the last four decades has contributed mightily to humankind’s attempt to test Sagan’s theory.
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