Tag Archives: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Voyager: Humanity’s First Interstellar Explorer

21 Jun

Interstellar space travel has only ever existed in the science fiction works of the past. Films, television and books appear to make emigrating to a new sun seem effortless and trouble free. The reality is that in order to cover these distances you need enormous amounts of energy or a copious amount of time. It is the latter that seems more realistic to us humans and the instruments of exploration we develop.

One such craft appears to be nearing this feat and is to become the first known object to traverse the stars. NASA’s Voyager twin spacecraft have been travelling through our solar system for decades now and they are approaching the final frontier and near conclusion to their epic mission. Launched in 1977 Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 took advantage of the intricate clockwork of our solar system by aiming to capture Jupiter and Saturn as they aligned in what was dubbed ‘The Grand Tour’.

Gravitational Slingshot Effect

Voyager 2 seized the opportunity of planetary configuration by flying onwards to Uranus and Neptune as it followed its twin sister out into the Universe. NASA scientists used a ‘gravitational slingshot’ effect allowing both spacecraft to fly in between the planets and hurl them outwards saving energy. Voyager 1 passed Jupiter just two years after launch in 1979 and Saturn, along with her moons, the following year. Voyager 1 is now some 10.8 Billion miles away from home, with Voyager 2 some 2 Billion miles behind, both hurtling towards the edge of our solar system and into the scary yonder of interstellar space.

The craft is approaching the edge of what is known as the Heliosphere, this is a ‘bubble’ around our star where charged particles are flung out into space by the Sun and its solar winds. Any day now Voyager 1 will start to detect a rapid increase in the amount of charged particles it has already encountered as it detects stars that have exploded in the past.

 More recently, we have seen very rapid escalation in that part of the energy spectrum. Beginning on May 7, the cosmic ray hits have increased five per cent in a week and nine percent in a month. Says Project Manager, JPL – Ed Stone.

Charged particles fill the Universe between the stars streaming radiation far and wide. Voyager will negotiate this wilderness en route to Proxima Centauri, our local neighbouring star. Unfortunately it would take Voyager 76,000 years to get there but we can still  be proud a human built craft is travelling between the stars.

Voyager 1 is a true pioneer in space travel, its time in the cosmos has lasted 35 years and is sure to continue until 2025 when the spacecrafts’s plutonium core propulsion system expires. On board the machine is a gold disc containing images and sounds of Earth along with drawings of human beings in the hope a distant civilization will discover them and learn about our fascinating species.

MSL: Will ‘Curiosity’ get the better of NASA?

20 Nov

On November 26th the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will finally be prepared to launch their third mobile laboratory, rover ‘Curiosity’, to the planet Mars. This mission is fraught with new challenges and especially risk as the agency will have to pioneer new exercises in order to assure the capsule has a soft landing. Can NASA overcome adversity and prove to this world that the work these rovers do will benefit our curiosity of the red planet?

NASA will have to perfect a brand new operations maneuver when this one-ton vehicle falls to the rocky surface at colossal speed. A rocket assisted landing will be attempted for the first time in outer space surroundings, NASA will have no second chances. The leading scientists of this mission do not have the luxury of the previous MER mission where the rovers were shielded by an airbag, leaving them to bounce along the unstable ground.

This pioneering mission has a lot riding on it as it is to date NASA most expensive mission into outer space, costing the administration $2.3 Billion. The capsule encasing the rover will be enroute to the red planet for over 8 months, increasing the chances of malfunction or error. The expensive payload carries a lot of new and improved equipment aboard making this one of NASA’s most risky of missions to date.

Humans have always been fascinated with their red neighbor and the idea of ‘Martian’ life forms walking or indeed invading the Earth. This MSL mission is taking that idea a step further as it goes in search of evidence to suggest that life once roamed this world.

MSL stands for Mars Science Laboratory and this will be the name given to the overall mission. The launch of the Atlas V rocket, the subsequent separation of the Curiosity rover and rocket, the 8 month journey, the decent to the planet, the landing onto Mars and of course the search for previous indications of life on the surface.

This mission has never been about finding microbial life. It is designed to asses habitability, past and present, not to detect life”. Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

NASA already has two other such machines that have been skimming the Martian surface since 2003. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were part of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) sent to the planet to study its geology and surface. This mission has had umpteen amounts of success and both machines are still strong today. They even assisted Mars experts to plot the landing site for Curiosity.

The gale crater is an area on Mars scientists believe is perfect to land their car-sized craft and it is an area of great interest as well. Guy Webster says,

Selection of Gale crater was indeed based on new discoveries after start of development of MSL, particularly the discoveries of clay materials on Mars since 2005”.

With the landing zone being 12.4 miles by 15.5 miles across, you might think it is quite some distance, but imagine landing a remote controlled airplane travelling at supersonic speed from a platform over 33 million miles away and you get an idea of the scale of this operation.

The launch window for the Atlas V rocket starts at 15:30 (GMT) on Friday 25th November and will run until December 18th, if all goes to plan. The Rover is expected to land on the Martian surface in August 2012.