Triumphs of space

Published February 19, 2014
This artist concept shows NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. — File Photo
This artist concept shows NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. — File Photo

Human beings are curious by nature. Ever since time immemorial, we have gazed towards the stars and imagined everything that lies beyond.

The night sky has helped many a traveller find their way and has inspired countless works of literature. We, as the human race, dreamt and longed to reach the stars, it was a dream that defined countless cultures and religions.

The dream became a reality on April 12th 1961, when Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Cosmonaut became the first person to orbit the Earth. A result of the space race between the two superpowers of the 20th century, the space race was the single most beneficial product for human kind originating out of the wasteful Cold War. We have achieved a lot more in recent times, and the opportunities and our thirst for knowledge only grows with every new milestone that we achieve. Here are some of the major achievements for the last few years.

Voyager 1 goes Interstellar

The most distant manmade object in space left our planet around 36 years ago. Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, and by 1989 had had a peek at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune while flying past them. The plasma measurement instrument stopped working as it made its last planetary fly-by, but that did not stop the probe from sending back vital data from deep space. Also aboard the Voyager is a gold record disc, with pictures, sounds and sights from planet Earth (there is a picture of Peshawar!), in case the probe finds itself in the hands of little green men who are curious about our little corner in this massive universe. In 2013, Voyager went interstellar and is now exploring and sending back valuable data from far beyond our reach. As the probe has a finite amount of power, it will continue to use its scientific instruments till around 2020, after which it will serve as mankind’s silent ambassador in space.

Mars Curiosity Rover

The Red Planet is host to countless accounts of fiction. It is only natural that we are most curious about our closet planetary neighbour. Launched in November 2011, the rover landed on Mars in August 2012, at a location called the Gale Crater. In a little more than over a year, the Mars Curiosity Rover has collected mineral samples from two rocks, taken radiation readings and found evidence that the planet could have supported micro-biological life at some point in time. Recently, NASA scientists upgraded the software suite on the rover after an issue was detected on the onboard systems. The data gathered by the rover on its flight to Mars, and its subsequent trek on the surface, will help greatly with future manned missions. The power supply on the Mars Curiosity Rover will power it for a full Mars year (687 Earth days) or more.

China lands on the Moon

China has proved to be a resourceful and ambitious country, and the country’s space program reflects it. In December 2013, the Chinese Space Agency (CNAS) performed the first ‘soft landing’ on the lunar surface in more than 40 years. It successfully landed the Chang’e probe and Yutu or ‘Jade Rabbit’ rover onto the lunar surface, with the objective of studying soil samples and mineral content on the surface of our closest celestial neighbour. It is a huge leap forward for a country which had a negligible space program till about two decades ago. The Jade Rabbit also has the honour of being the only rover on the moon, as the last one operated by the Soviets stopped functioning in 1973. The rover will now conduct a lunar geology and topography survey along with surveying for minerals. Indeed, a great achievement by the next superpower.

Reusable space rockets

Space exploration is an expensive activity to partake in, and an average-sized space program costs billions. Nation states find it difficult to maintain a functioning space program due to these costs, so how could a private venture sustain such lofty goals? The answer has been found in re-useable rockets. SpaceX, a private space transport company was founded in 2002 and designs, manufactures and launches its own rockets and spacecraft. They have revolutionised space travel and the ultimate goal is to enable people to live on another planet. A very lofty goal indeed, but towards which they are moving one small step at a time. Falcon 9, a rocket created by SpaceX made history by having its first stage return to Earth using retrorockets. This early experiment has tremendous potential as reusable rockets will drastically cut down on mission costs and maybe one day enable us, the dreamers, to reach space.

Hayabusa Space Probe

Japan’s Hayabusa Space Probe has the distinct honour of being the first spacecraft that returned to Earth carrying materials from an asteroid in orbit, which also included taking off from an asteroid, no easy feat in itself as asteroids are unpredictable pieces of rock known for slamming into things. The seven-year odyssey of the Hayabusa started in May 2003, and by mid-September 2005 had rendezvoused with the near-Earth asteroid named 25143 Itokawa. After suffering from delays and bad luck, which included being hit by the largest solar flare in history, the probe finally landed on the asteroid, two months behind schedule.

While present on the asteroid, the dust collection system malfunctioned, but not allowing this to deter from further efforts, the probe took off and made its way back to Earth with 1500 grains of asteroid dust on board. It finally re-entered our atmosphere, after a six billion mile, seven year odyssey to the interplanetary asteroid. It was also awarded a Guinness World Record, which was a nice recognition for the people behind it, even though they do things that have never been done before. It was a mission that captivated the world because of its sheer ambition and dedication.

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