Monday, August 09, 2010

Space Probes: Technology to Expand Our Knowledge of the Universe

    Space Probes: Technology to Expand Our Knowledge of the Universe
  • This summer has marked several milestones for space exploration. Check out these four present and future space probes that promise to expand our knowledge of the universe.
  • This summer has marked several milestones for space exploration. Check out these four present and future space probes that promise to expand our knowledge of the universe.

    Unfortunately for the would-be deep-space explorer, long-distance manned missions remain unlikely for the near future. Besides the extended duration, need for supplies and risk of psychological breakdown, perhaps the biggest challenge of long-term travel to outer space is its overflow of toxic radiation. While current technologies can shield astronauts during quick jaunts to the moon, even a trip to neighboring Mars could supply enough radioactive waves to kill a person.

    Enter space probes, which can be as effective as manned missions for scientific discovery, but remove the risk of death. Probes have been around since the 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched one to study the moon. Modern probes are making many headlines of late, as they send home discoveries, complete missions and are enhanced with myriad advanced technologies.


    In June, Japan’s Hayabusa capsule returned to Earth after a seven-year, 4-billion-mile journey to an asteroid named Itokawa. During its journey, the probe encountered several problems, such as being hit by a solar flare. Despite these setbacks, it successfully returned, landing in the Australian outback. At first, the probe’s challenges led scientists to worry that the capsule would yield no samples from the asteroid. Recent reports indicate, however, that dust particles, possibly from Itokawa, have been found inside of the probe.

    “We are still unsure if those particles are something from the Ikotawa or from the Earth,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) wrote in a press release, “thus we will further examine them.” The particles will need to be closely examined and compared with samples from Earth. If they are confirmed to be from the asteroid, the particles will be the first asteroid samples ever collected.

    When scientists first opened the Hayabusa capsule, they were thrilled to find these dust particles inside (source: JAXA).


    Another space probe making recent headlines is the Rosetta, which flew by the asteroid Lutetia on July 10. The probe’s ultimate goal is the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it should reach in 2014. The craft is carefully designed to make the difficult landing onto the astronomical body. It has legs which should absorb most of the force made upon landing to prevent the probe from bouncing up and down. Because the comet has extremely low gravity, Rosetta is equipped with a harpoon, which will anchor the probe to the comet and prevent it from escaping.

    Rosetta’s flyby past the Lutetia asteroid was described by the European Space Agency as a “spectacular success.” This asteroid has been a mystery to many scientists because it appears differently in various telescopes. Sometimes it seems to be an iron-containing meteorite, while other times it appears as a primitive asteroid. The images taken by Rosetta reveal that the asteroid is an incredibly old object left from the violent creation of the solar system.

    The Rosetta captured this spectacular photograph of the asteroid Lutetia in July (source: NASA).


    While Hayabusa and Rosetta are aiding research on asteroids, other probes are sent out in space to explore planets. Opportunity is one such example. In 2004, the Opportunity probe landed on Mars three weeks after its twin probe Spirit, which has since gotten stuck. While on Mars, the probe has exceeded expectations and fulfilled several milestones for space exploration. For example, it found the first meteorite ever discovered on another planet.

    Opportunity’s mission was only supposed to last 90 sols (Martian days). In May, however, it had completed 2,246 sols—nearly 25 times longer than planned, and a record for a probe’s time on Mars. Opportunity contains many high-tech devices to aid scientists on Earth. It’s equipped with three cameras, spectrometers, and tools for digging and brushing.

    The Opportunity probe has surpassed all expectations and has stayed active on Mars longer than any other probe (source: NASA).


    With its current space probes finding so much success, it’s no wonder that NASA is preparing for future missions. Perhaps most exciting is the Juno probe, set to launch next summer. The probe will make a five-year journey to its final destination, Jupiter, where it will stay for one year. The mission’s goal is to learn more about the solar system’s origins by measuring the amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere, mapping its structure, and exploring its magnetic field.

    Because Jupiter has more radiation than any other place NASA has ever sent a spacecraft, Juno will require advanced technologies and protection. On July 12, engineers installed a special radiation vault made from titanium onto the probe. "Juno is basically an armored tank going to Jupiter," says Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator. "Without its protective shield, or radiation vault, Juno's brain would get fried on the very first pass near Jupiter.

    Engineers install a radiation-blocking shield onto the Juno space probe (source: NASA).

    As technologies improve, we will continue to learn more about the mysteries of the universe. What space technologies are you particularly excited about? Sound off in our comment section below.

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