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50 Years of Robotic Planetary Exploration: David Kring, Senior Staff Scientist, Universities Space Research Association, Houston; Principal Investigator, LPI-JSC
Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad Jr. examines the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft
Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad Jr. examines the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft during his second extravehicular activity on the moon. Unmanned Surveyor spacecraft pioneered the technology that enabled Apollo astronauts to reach the moon.

What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?

Nearly every robotic mission ever flown has opened our minds to new and different planetary processes -- often in ways that could never have been anticipated beforehand -- this is the glory of exploring and investigating the unknown.

"Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter were
the trail blazers for the first human
exploration of a planetary surface."
David Kring

Among robotic missions over the past fifty years, two groups seem to have been the most influential.

The first group involves the Surveyor (1966-1968) and Lunar Orbiter (1966-1968) series of spacecraft to the moon. Those complementary robotic missions should always be highlighted in the annals of space exploration, because they pioneered the robotic methods used to explore planetary surfaces.

The Surveyor 1 spacecraft was the first soft landing on another planetary surface with a sophisticated laboratory.

Surveyor1 shadow on the surface of the moon
Surveyor 1, the first of the Surveyor missions to make a successful soft landing on the moon, proved design and landing techniques. In addition to transmitting over 11,000 pictures, it sent information on the bearing strength, the radar reflectivity and temperature of the lunar soil.

In parallel, the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft produced incredibly high-resolution images of potential landing sites.

Rugged Copernicus
This image was taken by the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft in 1966. This photo changed perceptions regarding the moon's surface by showing the moon to be a world with tremendous topography -- some of it Earth-like, much of it decidedly not.

Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter were the trail blazers for the first human exploration of a planetary surface. These missions were part of an integrated robotic and human exploration program that demonstrated the advantages of having integrated science and exploration activities (something that the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) are emulating today). The missions were so successful that they gave birth to a new field of science -- planetary science -- that continues to be a significant part of the compelling story of NASA.

A pair of the most mesmerizing pictures (I think) were captured by Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. These images were taken when the spacecraft was above the lunar farside, approaching Tsiolkovskiy crater and when the Earth emerged over the limb of the moon.

"The heavily cratered farside and the dark contrast of the volcanic mare filling the Tsiolkovskiy impact crater are seen as the Earth emerges over the limb in this moderate-resolution picture." -- David Kring
"The heavily cratered farside and the dark contrast of the volcanic mare filling the Tsiolkovskiy impact crater are seen as the Earth emerges over the limb in this moderate-resolution picture." -- David Kring

In the below high-resolution frame, we see the Earth above the limb of the moon in spectacular detail.

In this image by Lunar Orbiter 1 we view the moon with the Earth rising to the right.
In this image by Lunar Orbiter 1 we view the moon with the Earth rising to the right.

This type of Earth-rise view was repeatedly captured by subsequent Apollo missions, but the Lunar Orbiter 1's view, with clouds, seas and continents visible on the Earth, is still quite stunning. We sometimes forget that those views of the Earth from the moon completely altered the world's perspective of our home. At that moment in time, the world suddenly realized that home was a planet, that people of all nations share it and that we are all responsible for its health.

The second group of robotic missions I find significant from the past 50 years involves the two Voyager spacecraft. The Voyagers, launched in 1977, continue to probe the outermost reaches of our solar system today.

This view of the icy volcanic plains of Neptune's moon Triton was produced by using topographic maps derived from the images acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft during its August 1989 flyby.
This view of the icy volcanic plains of Neptune's moon Triton was produced by using topographic maps derived from the images acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft during its August 1989 flyby.

Voyager 1 and 2 provided stunning flyby views of the outer solar system's planetary bodies, which fundamentally altered our understanding of the giant planets, and provided the first hints of the fascinating geologic processes that operate on outer solar system moons.

Miranda by Voyager
In this Voyager 2 image we see a close up of Miranda, a moon of Uranus. Miranda sports one of the strangest and most varied landscapes among extraterrestrial bodies.

Who can forget the exciting discovery of volcanic plumes on Jupiter's moon Io?

This five-frame sequence of New Horizons images captures the giant plume from Io's Tvashtar volcano.
This five-frame sequence of New Horizons images captures the giant plume from Io's Tvashtar volcano.

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?

Perhaps the greatest revolution has been in our understanding of the role of impact events. That revolution began with the first robotic lunar missions, but has been influenced by nearly every mission since.

Herschel Crater in this view (captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on 13 February 2010) dominates Mimas, making the moon look like the Death Star in the movie "Star Wars."
Herschel Crater in this view (captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on 13 February 2010) dominates Mimas, making the moon look like the Death Star in the movie "Star Wars."

Not only do we now realize that impact cratering processes shape all planetary surfaces, we also now understand that particularly large collisions (i.e., the "giant impacts") may be involved in the final stages of planetary accretion and may significantly affect the final state of a planet. In the case of the Earth, this type of event may have created the moon. Those early lunar and planetary lessons forced us to re-evaluate our own world where evidence of ancient cratering events has been erased.

Aitken Crater
This is an Apollo 17 image of Aitken Crater on the moon. Aitken Crater is about 135 km (84 miles) in diameter. Aitken crater sits on the northern rim of the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which is the largest (about 2,500 km (1,553 miles) in diameter) and oldest recognized impact basin on the moon.

The moon taught us that the Earth (and all other inner solar system planets -- including Mars) were severely bombarded several hundred million years after accretion; that late heavy bombardment reshaped planetary surfaces and, at least on Earth, may have influenced the origin and early evolution of life. Application of those ideas (again derived from the moon) also taught us that impact cratering can affect the biological evolution of an evolved planet; in Earth's case leading to the demise of the dinosaurs.

NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photograph of Earth as seen from the vicinity of the moon, in 1966.
NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photograph of Earth as seen from the vicinity of the moon in 1966.

In broad terms, planetary science has caused an intellectual shift in how we look at the Earth. While we send robotic spacecraft to other solar system bodies to explore them, we have come to learn that each of those missions is also teaching us something about our own planet Earth.


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Last Updated: 28 August 2013

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