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.
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.
In parallel, the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft produced incredibly high-resolution images of potential landing sites.
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.
In the below high-resolution frame, we see the Earth above the limb of the moon in spectacular detail.
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.
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.
Who can forget the exciting discovery of volcanic plumes on Jupiter's moon Io?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last Updated: 1 March 2013