When Soviets Roved the Moon

The Lunokhod Rover, 7.5 feet long and just under 5 feet tall. Credit via NASA

Between Curiosity stretching its wheels and heads for its first big target site, Glenelg, and Opportunity finding new “blueberries,” concretions left by ancient mineral-laden water flowing through rocks, rovers are pretty hot right now. But Mars isn’t the first body to be explored remotely by a rover. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union sent two rovers, Lunokhod 1 and 2, to the Moon as part of the Luna program. The team remote controlling the rovers from Earth gained confidence quickly, and covered an impressive amount of the lunar surface in a short time. Though rudimentary compared to our modern Mars rovers, the Lunokhod’s are the pair that started it all. Read their full story at DVICE.

Gearing Up for the Sky Crane

The first image from the surface of Mars taken by Viking 1 in 1976. Credit: NASA

This Sunday night around 10:31 PST, the Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane will deliver the rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. It will land inside the geologically interesting Gale Crater, to be exact. Even among planetary landings it’s an exciting one, and for an historian it has some pretty interesting heritage. I’ve covered a few aspects of the mission’s history before, so here’s a small selection of articles to get you up to date on teh mission and excited about the most daring landing attempted to date on Mars. [Read more…]

Sounds of Space

Have you ever stopped to wonder why, during planetarium presentations filled with stunning images from other worlds, there is always a classical music soundtrack? That’s because no one has managed to capture planetary sounds, but not for lack of trying.  NASA’s Mars Polar Lander carried a microphone but the spacecraft crashed during its descent in 1999, and a French mission designed to record sound on Mars never flew. NASA’s successful Mars Phoenix Lander carried a microphone, but it failed to return any audio data during its 2008 mission. Simulated sounds, on the other hand, are easier to capture. Adjusting sound waves to reflect the environments on other bodies, we can start to get a sense of what space sounds like. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, Mars rover Opportunity’s half self portrait. 2004.)

NASA’s LRO: Shedding New Light on Old Mysteries

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter keeps finding interesting things on the moon. Last week, LRO’s camera photographed the landing sites of Luna 23 and 24, two Soviet probes that landed in the 1970s. The images have enabled scientists to solve mysteries about these missions, specifically what happened to Luna 23 and why the samples returned by Luna 24 were drastically different than anticipated. It seems these nearly 40-year-old missions are still unfolding. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, the Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft. One of many in the long-lasting program.)

Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition

Decades make great sales tools. Kennedy used a decade timeframe to sell American on the moon in 1961. Robert Zubrin recently tried the same pitch and called for a manned mission to Mars by the end of a decade (Zubrin’s been pitching a decade-long manned Mars program since the 1980s to no avail). A decade is a nice  round number, and when you’re at the start of a decade – like the year 1961 or 2011 – people (namely Congress and taxpayers) can easily contemplate the end of a decade as a timeframe. But it isn’t  only large-scale manned programs that use a round decade as a sales tool. Recently, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science in cooperation with NASA released an outline of its planetary goals for the coming decade. Where Mars in concerned, there is a pretty impressive program in the works from 2012 to 2023. But unlike the moon landing, bottomless funding isn’t going to achieve the goals at any cost. Instead, the next decade on Mars (pictured) will face certain challenges to meet the decadal goal.  [Read more…]

RATs and Monuments on Mars

In a previous post, I made the comment that I don’t necessarily think humans ought to colonize other planets; at least, not until we know a lot more about the environment upon which we intend to force ourselves. Manned exploration is another story. Sending men to another planet to survey the environment is much simpler than trying to replicate a man’s honed skills and keen mind in a machine – aside, of course, from the challenges associated with getting him there in the first place. Such tools exist on the recently silent Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. But the rover’s tools serve an unlikely second purpose. They stand as a tribute to those lost during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. (Left, MER rover Spirit captures its own shadow. Mars, 2004.) [Read more…]

Planetary Landings, Another New Frontier

Frequent visitors to Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I am fascinated with the problem of landing from space. Faced with this unknown, the US and Soviet Union developed very different methods, parachute-controlled descent and splashdown and Earth-landing via parachutes, retrorockets, and pilot ejection respectively. (Pictured, the view from Viking 1, the first successful robotic landing on Mars. 1976.)

Part of what interests me in studying landings is the lack of attention paid to this critical mission phase in favour of the more exciting launches. But there is one area were landings are not only a major focus but a vital aspect of a mission: robotic planetary exploration. Without a successful landing, there could be no robotic mission.

Like manned return from space, planetary landings have developed and become increasingly sophisticated over time.  The more scientists and engineers know about a planet, the better chance they have of successfully touching down on its surface. After all, each body in the solar system has different characteristics and presents difference challenged to the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) stage. [Read more…]

Spaceflight: Risky Business

One of the things that fascinates me about NASA’s early manned programs is the risks the organization took to achieve its goals. The Apollo Program is a great example: NASA had a goal, a time frame in which to achieve its goal, and a real need to succeed. The risks could be justified in the name of a successful end-of-decade lunar landing. But the organization also had the money needed to achieve such a technological feat – roughly 4 percent of the GDP in the mid-1960s instead of the less than 1 percent it has now. (Pictured, engineers and astronauts begin troubleshooting in the minutes after an explosion rocked Apollo 13. 1970.)

Still, it wasn’t just having enough money to run the tests needed to get the results. NASA made bold, daring decisions in the 60s. Since the end of Apollo, however, NASA has become more conservative in its approach to both manned spaceflight and unmanned planetary exploration. [Read more…]

Mars, a Victorian Sensation

Like Venus, Mars has long been an object of fascination to men – the red wanderer among the heavens, historically associated with the God of war, whose retrograde motions baffled astronomers for centuries. More than any other planet, Mars has experienced oscillating periods of interest; it has dominated astronomical studies as an irregularity and a world teeming with intelligent life, and falling into disinterst as a cold world. The trend has continued in the modern era of space exploration, with rovers and orbital spacecraft returning periodically to the red planet to explore the latest point of interest. (Pictured: Mars.)

Before this modern technological era, Mars enjoyed great popularity in the Victorian era as a life-harbouring planet. Emerging technologies applied to Martian studies combined with wildly fantastical theories to paint Mars as a probable second Earth – long before proposals of terraforming and colonization. [Read more…]

Unraveling Venus

Whenever anyone gets me talking about space and spaceflight, they invariably ask what got me started on ‘all of this space stuff’ in the first place. The short answer is Venus. I became captivated by the planet researching a second grade science project and my interest has continued growing from there. It is a planet, sometimes referred to as Earth’s twin but really more like the Earth turned inside out, that and I can see in the sky! But it’s never been the object that truly captivates me; it’s the hunt to learn about the object. [Read more…]