9 interplanetary missions that changed our understanding of the solar system

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9 interplanetary missions that changed our understanding of the solar system
9 interplanetary missions that changed our understanding of the solar system

On November 12, 2014, mankind took another important step forward along the thorny path of conquering space: for the first time, a spacecraft was able to land on the surface of a comet. The editorial staff of Naked Science decided to recall previous similar stages, the tremendous success of which lay on the fragile "shoulders" of interplanetary robots.


Moon 9

The pioneer on the lunar surface was the Soviet interplanetary station "Luna 9", which on February 3, 1966 was able to carry out the first ever soft landing on the surface of the only satellite of the Earth.

Moreover, having successfully delivered an automatic lunar station (ALS) to the lunar soil, Luna 9 became the first vehicle to land on a celestial body that is not Earth.

During 7 communication sessions with a total duration of more than 8 hours, the ALS transmitted to the Earth the first images of the Moon directly from its surface. The transmission of one panoramic image then took as long as 100 minutes.

"Luna 9" made its contribution to science: in particular, thanks to the images obtained, the "meteor-slag" theory of the structure of the lunar surface was confirmed.


Venus 7

The first spacecraft that was able to make a soft landing on the surface of Venus was the Soviet spacecraft Venera 7. After landing on December 15, 1970, Venera 7 also became the first spacecraft in history to land on the surface of another planet.

After entering the planet's atmosphere, the AMC transmitted data for 53 minutes, including 20 minutes, during which the station was already active on the surface of Venus.

Thanks to the data obtained, Soviet scientists were able to find out how the atmospheric temperature changed depending on the height of the device (from 25 degrees Celsius to about 475 on the surface). We also managed to find out about the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus (approximately 90 atmospheres).

It is worth noting that the first images of the Venusian surface were taken later, however, within the framework of the same Soviet Venus program. The first photographer on Venus was the AMS Venus 9, which successfully landed on the planet on October 22, 1975.


Viking program

In 1975, within the framework of the Viking program, the United States sent 2 spacecraft to Mars at short intervals. The Viking-1, like the Viking-2, consisted of an orbital and a descent module. The lander had a wide range of scientific instruments for studying the Martian soil and atmosphere, which should have allowed the Vikings to answer one of the most important questions - is there life on Mars.

On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 became the first spacecraft in history to successfully land on the surface of Mars. In September, Viking-2 landed on the Red Planet, albeit not so successfully - its engines burned out the Martian soil, which it was supposed to study, and one of the module supports stood on a stone, which caused the device to be tilted.

Both "Vikings" immediately transmitted to Earth mesmerizing panoramas of the alien terrain in which they found themselves.

In the years that followed, the Vikings conducted many scientific experiments, and also transmitted countless images of the Martian surface to Earth. In particular, the composition of the soil was investigated, an abundance of iron and silicon, as well as the presence of sulfates, were found. The search for biological samples, however, was not crowned with success.

"Viking-1" worked much longer than planned and failed only in 1982 - and then by mistake of a NASA employee, whose actions accidentally led to the loss of communication with the device without the possibility of its restoration. Viking 2 operated on the surface of the Red Planet until 1980.

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Mercury has traditionally occupied a low position in the priorities of the space powers. In the entire history of astronautics, there has not been a single landing on its surface, and only two vehicles were purposefully sent to study it - and both under the auspices of NASA.

The mission of the second of them - the Messenger spacecraft, which in March 2011 became the first spacecraft in history to enter the orbit of Mercury, turned out to be especially fruitful.

Based on the data obtained by the Mariner-10 spacecraft about Mercury, the Messenger made three flights past the planet in 2008-2009, and then entered its orbit.

As a result of the research carried out by Messenger, a lot of valuable scientific data was obtained. For example, thousands of high-quality images of the Mercurian surface made it possible to compile a detailed 3D map of the planet; to the great surprise of scientists, the scientific equipment of the AMS discovered ice at the poles of the planet closest to the Sun; also "Messenger" was able to find out that the magnetic field of the planet, for some reason, is much higher to the north pole of the planet relative to its center.

In addition, mapping the planet's surface has revealed mysterious black dots that can be found almost all over the planet. Most likely, they are small meteorite craters, but the material in them is extremely heterogeneous. This allowed scientists to conclude that the "insides" of Mercury are not as uniform as previously thought, and the planet may have a rather complex structure.

The Messenger mission should be completed only in 2015, and the exploration of Mercury continues.



It is difficult to name a more fruitful interplanetary mission than the American Voyager program. Two vehicles - Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 - were launched to Jupiter and Saturn in 1977 and have since become pioneers in many areas.

In particular, Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to take detailed images of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And Voyager 2 managed to fly close to Europa and Ganymede - large satellites of Jupiter from the so-called Galilean group. Thanks to the data obtained by the device, a hypothesis was put forward about the presence of satellites of liquid oceans under the ice crust, which became a kind of revolution and made us talk about the possibility of the existence of life in these oceans.

Also, Voyager 2 is the first and so far the only AMC that has managed to reach Uranus and Neptune. During the flight past these planets, the device made and transmitted thousands of images to Earth, which made it possible to study the rings of the planets and their satellites. Voyager 2 discovered 11 new satellites near Uranus, and discovered functioning geysers on Neptune's satellite Triton, which surprised scientists.

But even this is not the end of Voyager's successes. After studying the planets, the vehicles went even further - to the borders of the solar system. Voyager 1 had by then become the fastest man-made object launched from Earth. He also became the first man-made object to reach the interstellar medium - that is, literally left the solar system, which made it possible to determine the still working equipment on board.

The unique location of the device will allow scientists until 2025 (when the plutonium fuel finally runs out) to study the properties of the interstellar medium. Inspiration for astrophysicists is also added by the fact that Voyager 2 is also moving to the edge of the solar system and in a few years will enter interstellar space, which will allow independent observations and measurements to be carried out and compared with the results of Voyager 1.



The goal of the AMS Galileo mission, launched by NASA in 1989, was to study Jupiter and its moons.The apparatus coped with this brilliantly, having completed all the planned studies.

Galileo became the first and so far the only spacecraft to orbit Jupiter. Prior to this, numerous images of the Jupiterian satellites of the Galilean group, made by the AMS, made it possible to confirm the hypothesis that they (in particular, Europa) had subglacial oceans.

In 1994, Galileo observed a comet falling into Jupiter's atmosphere for the first time in history. The photographs taken by the apparatus allowed scientists to see large black footprints that remained in the outer clouds of the planet after the collision.

In 1995, Galileo sent its descent module into Jupiter's atmosphere. To the surprise of scientists, the planet's atmosphere turned out to be not as dense as previously thought, and the module was able to go deeper into it for 130 km, transmitting the first data on temperature and pressure in the outer and deeper regions of the gas giant to Earth.

In 2003, the Galileo program ended, and the orbital module was also sent into the merciless atmosphere of Jupiter, where it burned up.


NEAR Shoemaker

The success of the Rosetta on the comet was preceded by the success of the AMS on the asteroid. In 1996, NASA sent the NEAR Shoemaker probe to the near-Earth asteroid Eros, which was supposed to study its geology and chemical composition.

During the first flight of the device near the asteroid in January 1999, the computer software on board the probe failed, which led to the loss of NEAR Shoemaker's connection with the Earth for more than a day. A significant part of the fuel was also lost, which was consumed during uncontrolled and unexplained engine start-ups during the anomaly. Gradually, the probe got back in touch, and the malfunction was neutralized.

In February 2000, NASA's NEAR Shoemaker probe became the first ever spacecraft to orbit an asteroid. After all the planned studies were carried out, it was decided to land the probe on the surface of the asteroid. Despite the fact that the agency did not really expect a favorable outcome, the device managed to land on the surface of Eros without damage and for more than two weeks transmit to Earth valuable scientific data on the chemical composition of the asteroid, after which the connection with NEAR Shoemaker was finally lost.

The success of another notable AMC is associated with the asteroid. The Japanese probe Hayabusa, despite numerous technical problems bordering on failure, was able in June 2010 for the first time in history to deliver soil samples to Earth from an asteroid (Yotokawa).



The Cassini-Huygens mission, developed in the United States, Europe and Italy, was designed to conquer the Saturn system - in particular, to study the satellites of the gas giant and its rings.

Of course, the AMC, launched in 1997, coped with all the tasks set. The orbital module of the station - "Cassini" - took thousands of stunning images of Saturn, Jupiter and their countless satellites, which told us a lot about the outer solar system.

Among the valuable scientific discoveries, such as the discovery of new satellites of Saturn, as well as the mysterious "spokes" in the rings of the planet, Titan's research stands out in particular. "Cassini" managed to discern real methane and ethane lakes in the dense atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, one of which reaches the size of the Caspian Sea. This, naturally, is the first case of detection of surface lakes in the solar system outside the Earth.

Also, "Cassini" was able to verify the provisions of General Relativity (successfully), to detect several large planetary hurricanes on Saturn, to become the first spacecraft in history that was able to enter the orbit of Saturn, and much more.

The mission of the apparatus was extended two times - in 2008 and 2010. Cassini is still conducting research near Saturn. In 2017, the US and Europe will decide on the next extension of the mission; several options are proposed, from the end of the program in the form of a collision with Jupiter or Mercury to a flight to the outskirts of our planetary system to study Uranus and Neptune.



The Huygens lander, launched together with the Cassini orbital module, deserves a separate item.

On January 14, 2005, the Huygens, separated from Cassini, entered Titan's atmosphere and successfully landed on its surface. The module was not only the first spacecraft to land on Titan, but also the first to land on a large celestial body in the outer solar system.

During the descent, Huygens successfully transmitted to Cassini (which, in turn, transmitted to Earth) images of Titan's landscape, and then, after landing, images of its surface and data from measuring instruments.

Based on this data, scientists described Titan's soil as "sand" composed of "grains of ice." Photographs of the surface show many small boulders (possibly of water ice) that are rounded - probably indicative of exposure to liquid, although no liquid could be found in the immediate vicinity of the Huygens landing site.

It is also worth noting that certain anomalies near the surface of Titan have allowed some scientists to say that there may be life on Titan. In particular, there is an assumption that there may be life forms different from the terrestrial ones, which breathe hydrogen gas, feed on acetylene, and produce methane. However, such theories of explaining gas anomalies are still far from being confirmed.

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