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50 Years of Robotic Planetary Exploration: Steve Vance (Planetary Scientist/Astrobiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
1 Jun 2012
(Source: )

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

The missions that were the most significant for me were the twin Voyagers and the Galileo mission because these were the missions that produced the pictures that influenced me to get into planetary science. In particular, the images that stuck with me when I was a kid were the pictures of Uranus and Neptune by Voyager 2. I remember I wrote a report on Uranus, and I used this particular Voyager picture of the planet with the eerie blue color (see above). I was intrigued by the idea that it was out there, in the sky.

Galileo is a mission close to my heart: I finished my undergraduate studies just as Galileo was returning a lot of the amazing results about Jupiter and Europa. It is hard for me to imagine what our knowledge of the Jupiter system was like before we measured its magnetic field and before we saw all the various forms of volcanism on Io.

At the same time, Galileo breaks my heart too. Galileo only returned a tenth of the data it was intended to return, due to the deployment failure of an antenna. Galileo still did an amazing job, and is a testament to the ingenuity of the people who designed and operated the craft. The team was able to rework the mission after the antenna failure and the Galileo mission returned powerful science results despite all the difficulties.

I went to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launch. I am super excited for the next phase of Mars exploration. I look at how the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has changed our view of the surface of Mars and I think that MSL will do something very similar -- in terms of showing us things we couldn't imagine on Mars; making Mars a planet, in our minds, more like the Earth than we currently see it.

At least for me, before MRO, Mars was red and dusty everywhere. Now, we have all these images of a diverse and active planet: beautiful rock formations, dunes, flow features (possible evidence for water just below the surface), glaciers, and erupted geyser-like features -- so-called "spiders" -- in the north.

Each mission is part of a story that keeps evolving -- I am looking forward to a rich history of robotic exploration to come.

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 am working on a CubeSat project right now. I am hoping to be involved in the development of small low-cost satellites to be launched opportunistically along with larger ones; that way we can get a lot more science out of a much smaller investment. CubeSats can do simple things like coordinated measurements of gravity around an object. Using CubeSats for these tasks creates the possibility for dividing huge investments in monolithic projects instead into coupled multi-element missions.

Other Images of Note:

My favorite picture of Jupiter is by Cassini, taken as a "target of opportunity" as it was passing by. The details and the different cloud forms swirling around remind me of a mixture of oil and water. I understand that Jupiter's atmosphere is massive and violent compared with Earth's, and that the variations in color are linked to materials coming up from below. However, my gut impression is how physics at a length scale larger than the Earth can somehow resemble a bowl used for dipping one's bread.

Spirit's image of a Martian sunset seems to me like one of the most significant images. It is right up there with our view of Earth from the Moon in my opinion.

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Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012