What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?
Since we are limiting the question to robotic exploration I have to choose the Voyager missions as the most significant event from the past 50 years.
The Voyagers are now the most distant man-made objects -- they are humanity's ambassadors. The fact that they are still working and gathering data is amazing. I was quite young back when they were launched -- I had no idea what space exploration was, how spacecraft are built or that eventually I would end up in this business.
Secondly, I choose the Viking missions: The first explorers of the planet that has become my second home. I still remember how amazed I was seeing the images on TV.
Third, I choose the Mars Exploration Rovers -- of course!
For the past eight years they have become very familiar, almost like friends -- very, very far away friends. The landscapes, especially at Meridiani, are very beautiful to me.
And finally Cassini: Not being a planetary geologist, I can only be amazed by the quality and beauty of the images returned by this mission. These are the images I had in my mind when reading science fiction novels.
In your field of work, what are some examples of the great achievements and discoveries in planetary science and robotic exploration throughout the past 50 years?
I could argue the many achievements of the MER vehicles -- they have returned data that will keep geologists busy for decades, and some of the images are stunning. But it is the Voyager mission that I have deep in my heart. We have sent many spacecraft to various places in our solar system, but they are the only ones that are beyond our small neighborhood.
Other favorite images?
There are two: The first is Earth's view from Mars Reconaissance Orbiter's (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).
The second is the classic "Pale Blue Dot" image of our home planet.
"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."
Both images show the Earth as a unique place, a single entity, not divided by countries or property lines. These images make our problems and horror stories seem quite petty.
Last Updated: 8 August 2012