Feature | December 14, 2012

Going Further and Farther

Jim Adams
Deputy Chief Technologist, NASA Headquarters

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    Artist concept of Voyager Missions
    A whimsical artist's concept captures the spirit of NASA's Voyager mission. The Voyagers are currently exploring an uncharted region located far beyond the planets we now know ... they are on a journey that will ultimately transition into interstellar space. Image Credit: NASA
    On the other end of the spectrum is a technology that has the potential to take us farther―and faster―than ever before: ion propulsion.

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

    From our very first forays to another planet (Mariner 2 at Venus in 1962) to Mars Science Laboratory's recent astounding landing on the Red Planet―over the past 50-plus years we have ventured into space in so many amazing ways.

    I think one of our greatest accomplishments is the Voyager mission and its twin Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 has been traveling for over 35 years and is now nearing the edge of our solar system.

    Prototype Voyager spacecraft
    A prototype Voyager spacecraft is shown at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., as it successfully passed vibration tests which simulated the expected launch environment. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

    This mission is incredible.

    Wide-angle view of Saturn's Rings
    This is a wide-angle view of Saturn's rings just before Voyager crossed the ring plane. Image Credit: NASA

    Besides sending us back unprecedented views of the outer planets and their moons, both spacecraft are still sending back new information about a part of our solar system we've never ventured into before.

    Voyager 2 image of Uranus' moon Miranda
    This is a Voyager 2 image of Uranus' moon Miranda taken shortly before closest approach on 24 January 1986. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

    In some ways, I don't think we're that surprised anymore when a space mission lasts much longer than expected. This particular piece of exquisite engineering (Voyager 1) was launched back in 1977―it predates almost everything we've come to think of as technologically advanced. And yet ... Voyager 1 is our interstellar ambassador.

    Image of man mounting "Sounds of Earth" record on Voyager 1.
    A gold-plated record with the "Sounds of Earth" recordings is mounted on its flight bracket on the mission module of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

    I can't wait to find out what it's going to tell us next.

    Ion Beam
    This small ion rocket is shown here being tested inside a vacuum test facility. Image Credit: NASA

    On the other end of the spectrum is a technology that has the potential to take us farther―and faster―than ever before: ion propulsion.

    Deep Space 1 (1998) tested a dozen new technologies, and perhaps most importantly it tested the ion engine.

    Borrelly's Rugged Surface
    In this highest resolution view of the icy, rocky nucleus of comet Borrelly, (about 45 m or 150 feet per pixel) a variety of terrains and surface textures, mountains and fault structures, as well as darkened material are visible over the nucleus's surface.

    The Deep Space 1 probe performed an extraordinary flyby of asteroid 9969 Braille and then―in an extended mission―flew by comet Borrelly. It was the use of the ion engine which allowed Deep Space 1 to add this extra destination to its mission plan.

    These two flybys were each on their own amazing, but in addition the Deep Space 1 ion engine accumulated more operating time in space than any other rocket engine in the history of the space program. The engine operated for 16,246 hours.

    Ion propulsion is now being used on commercial spacecraft, for a variety of NASA deep space robotic missions, and may one day be used for human deep space exploration.

    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?

    Hartley 2
    This close-up view of comet Hartley 2 was taken by NASA's EPOXI mission during its flyby of the comet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

    I think it's fascinating that we are studying the first pieces of our solar system. We can learn so much from looking at asteroids, comets and protoplanets.

    Asteroid 21 Lutetia
    Asteroid Lutetia has been revealed as a battered world of many craters. ESA's Rosetta mission returned the first close-up images of the asteroid showing it is most probably a primitive survivor from the violent birth of the solar system. Image Credit: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

    Space is a diverse place―everywhere we go we find something new. It is through the study of other worlds that we are finding the pieces to the puzzle which will allow us to answer the three big science questions: "Where did we come from?" "Where are we going?" and "Are we alone?"

    Asteroid 21 Lutetia
    NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photograph of Earth as seen from the vicinity of the moon, in 1966. Image Credit: NASA / LOIRP

    When we put the puzzle pieces together we see a fascinating, marvelously elegant picture of our own home.

    Highlighting Plumes
    At least four distinct plumes of water ice spew out from the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus in this dramatically illuminated image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

    The solar system is our cradle of life, and around it we've found water nearly everywhere. We now recognize that where there is water, there can be life, or at least the necessary elements for life.

    Comet Halley
    In 1986, the European spacecraft Giotto became one of the first spacecraft ever to encounter and photograph the nucleus of a comet. Image Credit: Halley Multicolor Camera Team, Giotto Project, ESA

    For example, let's look at comet tails. Comets are remnants from the early formation of the solar system. Comets are also sojourners from the absolute furthest reaches of our solar system; a region called the Oort Cloud. (The Oort Cloud is so far out from the sun that Voyager is only about five percent of the way there!) Even though the home of comets is so far out, we find that in the tails of comets are amino acids ... the building blocks of life.

    Europa Ridges
    In this image we see a mosaic of ridges and craters on Europa (a moon of Jupiter). Image Credit: NASA/JPL

    I truly think that our solar system harbors life elsewhere―perhaps Mars or Europa, or Enceladus. AND that we will find it within the next 50 years of planetary science and solar system exploration.

    Comet Tempel 1
    This spectacular image of comet Tempel 1 was taken 67 seconds after it obliterated Deep Impact's impactor spacecraft. Deep Impact's small probe was the first manmade object to collide with a comet. The image was taken by the high-resolution camera on the mission's flyby craft.

    What I find most impressive is the technological innovation we are experiencing in the study of small bodies.

    Similar to Deep Space 1, the Dawn mission (which launched in 2007) is visiting two destinations. However, for the very first time we planned the mission this way. This was made possible by the ion propulsion system demonstrated on Deep Space 1.

    Asteroid Vesta
    NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on 18 July 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 10,500 km (6,500 miles) away from Vesta. The smallest detail visible is about 2.0 km (1.2 miles). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    Dawn completed the first part of its mission at Vesta in 2012 and then began traveling to asteroid, and dwarf planet, Ceres. To plan arrival at two destinations so far apart in a single mission is a change in the way we think, and how we do in-space propulsion.

    Full-Frame Image of Vesta
    NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on 24 July 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 5,200 km (3,200 miles). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on 15 July, and spent a year orbiting the body. Next stop on its itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    It is through this innovation and advancement that we are going where no one has gone before, in ways we could never have imagined. I look forward to our up-and-coming adventures in space.

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