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Distinguished Professor of Geoscience, Penn State University
What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?
Hubble is robotic in a sense, but it was serviced by humans. I am a big admirer of both manned and unmanned spaceflight. They both have their purposes and sometimes, as with Hubble, they can combine and produce really spectacular results.
The Hubble has done more for the field of astronomy than any other mission. It's, on a scientific basis, easily NASA's most successful science mission ever. Of course it has been up there for 20 years, so it should be.
There have been some other very spectacularly successful missions. I think that I would rank the Voyager missions to the outer planets right up there.
Voyager was a tremendous technical achievement. It was thirty years ago when they did the grand tour of the solar system.
"Look again at that dot," Carl Sagan wrote in his book "Pale Blue Dot." "That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
I never cease to be impressed, as Carl Sagan was, at how well the two Voyager spacecraft performed.
I think the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Huygens probe were also spectacularly successful.
Also, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER): They did much more than we thought that they were going to be capable of doing on Mars.
I think that it is just cool that we are able to go around and explore the Martian surface. We learned some interesting things about the Martian chemistry from MER, but MER was basically a proof of concept -- that we could design automated rovers to go around and explore the Martian surface. Of course Mars Science Laboratory is a bigger version thereof, and I hope that it will do fabulously.
Another one of my favorite images from space is the Crab Nebula from the Very Large Telescope (VLT). It is pretty spectacular -- I keep a copy of it in my home office.