Sunday, November 09, 2014

Thoughts on the Antares space probe explosion

I've wanted to write more about astrophysics, but as usual, real life has gotten in the way.  Well, last week the unmanned Antares space probe exploded upon liftoff.  Then the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing its crew members.  These accidents were major setbacks and huge dismay, but it doesn't change my confidence that this and the coming decades will prove some very interesting developments in our understanding of our universe.

It's important to take a step back and see where we are in the age of space discovery.

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes, launched in the 1970s, has successfully explored the outer planets Jupiter and Neptune.  Now both are exploring the interstellar space, more than 15 billion kilometers away from Earth.

The Cassini space probe visited Saturn's system, and its Huygens lander touched down at Titan in 2005, bringing us tons of data which will take years to analyze.  Yes, you heard that right.  We have taken terrestrial pictures from the surface of Titan, which is a moon of Saturn, which is a gas giant planet really far away. Don't forget this gorgeous picture of Earth (tiny dot on the lower right with the arrow) taken from Saturn.

View of Earth from Cassini, Saturn in foreground

In 2015 the New Horizons space probe will pass by dwarf planet Pluto, and subsequently enter the Kuiper belt at the outer edge of the Solar System for another 10 years before its nuclear power runs out.  The data we receive from the probe will lead us to discovery of countless findings, bringing our understanding of the universe to a more complete picture, while most likely raising many new questions altogether.

These are costly missions ultimately aimed at exploring the outer worlds.   I shudder to think what would happen if these missions never happened due to a launch explosion.....

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