The Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 with the ultimate destination of Jupiter, carried a number of scientific instruments on board to study the solar system while on route to Jupiter, including a radiometer and ultraviolet, extreme ultraviolet, and near-infrared spectrometers, which take pictures of light outside the visible range. Upon arrival at Jupiter in 1995, Galileo released a probe that plunged into the planet’s fiery atmosphere, transmitting vital scientific data before it was destroyed.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft set out toward Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan in October 1997. Cassini reached Jupiter at the end of the year 2000 and is scheduled to reach Saturn in 2004. After reaching Saturn, it should release a probe into Titan’s atmosphere.
Other Solar System Missions
Aside from the planets and their moons, space missions have focused on a variety of other solar system objects. The Sun, whose energy affects all other bodies in the solar system, has been the focus of many missions. Between and beyond the orbits of the planets, innumerable smaller bodies—asteroids and comets—also orbit the Sun. All of these celestial objects hold mysteries, and spacecraft have been launched to unlock their secrets.
A number of the earliest satellites were launched to study the Sun. Most of these were Earth-orbiting satellites. The Soviet satellite Sputnik 2, launched in 1957 to become the second satellite in space, carried instruments to detect ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun. Several of the satellites in the U.S. Pioneer series of the late 1950s through the 1970s gathered data on the Sun and its effects on the interplanetary environment. A series of Earth-orbiting U.S. satellites, known as the Orbiting Solar Observatories (OSO), studied the Sun’s ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray radiation through an entire cycle of rising and falling solar activity from 1962 to 1978. Helios 2, a solar probe created by the United States and West Germany, was launched into a solar orbit in 1976 and ventured within 43 million km (27 million mi) of the Sun. The U.S. Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft was designed to monitor solar flares and other solar activity during the period when sunspots were especially frequent. After suffering mechanical problems, in 1984 it became the first satellite to be repaired by astronauts aboard the space shuttle. The satellite Yohkoh, a joint effort of Japan, the United States, and Britain, was launched in 1991 to study high-energy radiation from solar flares. The Ulysses mission was created by NASA and the European Space Agency. Launched in 1990, the spacecraft used a gravitational assist from the planet Jupiter to fly over the poles of the Sun. The European Space Agency launched the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1995 to study the Sun’s internal structure, as well as its outer atmosphere (the corona), and the solar wind, the stream of subatomic particles emitted by the Sun.
Asteroids are chunks of rock that vary in size from dust grains to tiny worlds, the largest of which is more than a third the size of Earth’s Moon. These rocky bodies, composed of debris left over from the formation of the solar system, are among the latest solar system objects to be visited by spacecraft. The first such encounter was made by the Galileo spacecraft, which passed through the solar system’s main asteroid belt on its way to Jupiter. Galileo flew within 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of the asteroid Gaspra on October 29, 1991. Galileo’s images clearly showed Gaspra's irregular shape and a surface covered with impact craters. On August 28, 1993, Galileo passed close by the asteroid 243 Ida and discovered that it is orbited by another, smaller asteroid, subsequently named Dactyl. Ida is the first asteroid known to possess its own moon. On June 27, 1997, the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft flew past asteroid 253 Mathilde. NEAR reached the asteroid 433 Eros and became the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid in February 2000. The United States launched the spacecraft Deep Space 1 (DS1) in 1998 to prepare for 21st-century missions within the solar system and beyond. In July 1999 DS1 flew by the small asteroid 9969 Braille and discovered that it is composed of the same type of material as the much larger asteroid 4 Vesta. Braille may be a broken piece of Vesta, or it may have simply formed at the same time and place as Vesta in the early solar system.
Comets are icy wanderers that populate the solar system’s outermost reaches. These “dirty snowballs” are chunks of frozen gases and dust. When a comet ventures into the inner solar system, some of its ices evaporate. The comet forms tails of dust and ionized gas, and many have been spectacular sights. Because they may contain the raw materials that formed the solar system, comets hold special fascination for astronomers. Although several comets have been observed by a variety of space-born instruments, only one has been visited by spacecraft. The most famous comet of all, Halley’s Comet, made its most recent passage through the inner solar system in 1986. In March 1986 five separate spacecraft flew past Halley, including the USSR’s Vega 1 and Vega 2 probes, the Giotto spacecraft of the European Space Agency, and Japan’s Sakigake and Suisei probes. These encounters produced valuable data on the composition of the comet’s gas and dust tails and its solid nucleus. Vega 1 and 2 returned the first close-up views ever taken of a comet’s nucleus, followed by more detailed images from Giotto. Giotto went on to make a close passage to Comet P/Grigg-Skjellerup on July 10, 1992.
Piloted spaceflight presents even greater challenges than unpiloted missions. Nonetheless, the United States and the USSR made piloted flights the focus of their Cold War space race, knowing that astronauts and cosmonauts put a face on space exploration, enhancing its impact on the general public. The history of piloted spaceflight started with relatively simple missions, based in part on the technology developed for early unpiloted spacecraft. Longer and more complicated missions followed, crowned by the ambitious and successful U.S. Apollo missions to the Moon. Since the Apollo program, piloted spaceflight has focused on extended missions aboard spacecraft in Earth orbit. These missions have placed an emphasis on scientific experimentation and work in space.
Vostok and Mercury
At the beginning of the 1960s, the United States and the USSR were competing to put the first human in space. The Soviets achieved that milestone on April 12, 1961, when a 27-year-old pilot named Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit of Earth in a spacecraft called Vostok(East). Gagarin’s Vostok was launched by an R-7 booster, the same kind of rocket they had used to launch Sputnik. Although the Soviets portrayed Gagarin’s 108-minute flight as flawless, historians have since learned that Vostok experienced a malfunction that caused it to tumble during the minutes before its reentry into the atmosphere. However, Gagarin parachuted to the ground unharmed after ejecting from the descending Vostok.
On May 5, 1961, the United States entered the era of piloted spaceflight with the mission of Alan Shepard. Shepard was launched by a Redstone booster on a 15-minute “hop” in a Mercury spacecraft named Freedom 7. Shepard’s flight purposely did not attain the necessary velocity to go into orbit. In February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, logging five hours in space. His Mercury spacecraft, called Friendship 7, had been borne aloft by a powerful Atlas booster rocket. After his historic mission, the charismatic Glenn was celebrated as a national hero.
The Soviets followed Gagarin’s flight with five more Vostok missions, including a flight of almost five days by Valery Bykovsky and the first spaceflight by a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, both in June 1963. By contrast, the longest of the six piloted Mercury flights was the 34-hour mission flown by Gordon Cooper in May 1963.
By today’s standards, Vostok and Mercury were simple spacecraft, though they were considered advanced at the time. Both were designed for the basic mission of keeping a single pilot alive in the vacuum of space and providing a safe means of return to Earth. Both were equipped with small thrusters that allowed the pilot to change the craft’s orientation in space. There was no provision, however, for altering the craft's orbit—that capability would have to wait for the next generation of spacecraft. Compared to Mercury, Vostok was both roomier and more massive, weighing 2,500 kg (5,500 lb)—a reflection of the greater lifting power of the R-7 compared with the U.S. Redstone and Atlas rockets.