the most interesting spacecraft exploring the solar system

The study of the far corners of the solar system is an important area of ​​human scientific activity. First of all, this is the first step towards the colonization of other planets, and thus to the survival of mankind as a species in the event of an ecological or other type of disaster on Earth, which is still the only home of mankind. What directions have scientists chosen and why is it so important to send a spacecraft outside the solar system? These questions can be answered by examining existing space exploration missions.

Voyager and Voyager 2

The American research missions Voyager and Voyager 2, launched a week apart in 1977, are among the most distant man-made space objects from Earth today. Now there are automatic interplanetary stations at a distance of about 18 billion km from Earth – outside the heliopause, but still inside the solar system.

It is not entirely clear how long the stations will leave our system – it is surrounded by the Oort cloud – a hypothetical giant cluster of comets that are under the influence of the Sun’s gravity. In practice, the existence of the cloud has not yet been confirmed, but many mathematical models indicate its presence. According to experts, Voyager may go beyond the outer limits of the cloud in about 30 thousand years.

Meanwhile, the first Voyager mission, launched more than 40 years ago, is the fastest man-made object in the universe. Although a similar probe – New Horizons – was launched much later and technically faster, Voyager made a successful interplanetary gravitational maneuver, which greatly accelerated it. For example, by performing a Voyager 2 gravity assist around Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, the station was able to reach Neptune 20 years earlier than its forward speed would allow.

Now the stations approximate speed is about 17.5 km/s – or 0.005% of the speed of sunlight. At certain times of the year, the distance between Voyager 1 and Earth decreases. This is due to the fact that the speed of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (about 30 km / s) is higher than the speed at which Voyager 1 moves away from it.

Initially, both Voyager missions were launched to explore the far corners of the solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (Voyager 2 is the only probe that made it to this planet, and astrophysicists still use data from it to study it) and Neptune, as well key satellites these planets.

In the future – after 2025 – both devices will lose contact with Earth. Their sensors are not sufficient to transmit data over such distances. According to calculations, only after another 40 thousand years Voyager will fly to its first star – Ross 248 – a single star in the constellation Andromeda, located at a distance of 10.4 light years from the Sun.


Between 1958 and 2019, humanity launched 224 research missions into space and several thousand more commercial and domestic satellites. The first successfully launched automatic interplanetary station was the Soviet Luna-1, which flew past the Moon due to a miscalculation.


New horizons

The New Horizons robotic station is another American mission to study the far corners of the solar system. The New Horizons mission was launched in 2006, and the probe’s initial lifetime was estimated to be 15–17 years.

At launch, New Horizons would be the fastest man-made object in the universe – at launch its velocity was 16.2 km/s – relative to Earth, and the heliocentric velocity exceeded 45 km/s, which would allow the mission to leave the Solar System even without a gravitational maneuver around Jupiter. Gradually, however, the speed of New Horizons began to decrease and today it has been at the level of 14.5 km/s.

The main goal of New Horizons is to study the formation of the Pluto and Charon systems, the study of the Kuiper belt, as well as the processes that took place in the early stages of the evolution of the solar system. The mission will study the surface and atmosphere of objects in the Pluto system and its immediate environment – ​​to map, explore the geology and search for the atmosphere.

As a result, after collecting all the information about these planets, the mission participants decided to send New Horizons to the Kuiper belt – a giant asteroid region at the edge of the explored zone of the solar system. It contains hundreds of thousands of asteroids with a diameter of more than 100 km, partly Pluto, long-period comets from the Oort cloud with an orbital period of 200 years around the Sun, and trillions of comets.

In the same place, New Horizons will study one of the solar system’s most distant asteroids – Ultima Thule, which we talked about in detail here.

New Horizons recently discovered a huge mass of hydrogen at the edge of the solar system, where interstellar hydrogen collides with the solar wind. Scientists analyzed a 360-degree image of ultraviolet radiation around the probe and found a strange brightness that could indicate the presence of potentially condensed hydrogen. The solar wind is thought to slow down around this point, so this is how it can be affected by interstellar hydrogen and radiation from other stars.

In addition to scientific equipment, American flags, a fragment of the first inhabited private spacecraft SpaceShipOne, a CD with photographs of the device and its developers, a US postage stamp, two coins and a capsule containing part of the ashes of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, are installed aboard New Horizons.

Parker solar probe

The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft from NASA was launched relatively recently – in the summer of 2018. Its main mission is to study the outer corona of the Sun from a distance of 6.1 million km – in this place the temperature will exceed 2 million degrees Celsius, while the probe will even to touch it and not melt.

The probe will not melt because the corona that the Parker Solar Probe will fly through has an extremely high temperature but a very low density. Thanks to this feature, the heat shield covering the Parker Solar Probe will heat up to only 1,644 °C. We have already talked about the Parker Solar Probe mission and the properties of the solar corona in a separate article.

Parker Solar Probe holds the record among all objects that reach the Sun – several space probes have previously reached a distance of about 7 million km from the Sun.

With the Parker Solar Probe, scientists will try to find out what the solar wind looks like, how the magnetic field affects it, and to study plasma particles near the sun and the effect on the solar wind and the formation of energetic particles.

So far, humanity knows very little about the solar corona. Solar eclipses were the only source of study for decades, as the Moon blocked the brightest part of the star, allowing us to observe the Sun’s faint outer atmosphere. And only in recent years did NASA begin launching missions to study it.

It is too early to talk about the results of the mission – not even a year has passed since the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, and the first full-fledged approach to the Sun will occur only in 2024.

Insight

Literally the whole world saw the launch of the InSight Mars mission live – on November 26, 2018, NASA and hundreds of media broadcast from this event.

The InSight mission is designed for 720 days. During this time, the probe will study the seismic activity of the planet and, most importantly, drill a well of up to 5 m. Perhaps this will make it possible to detect the accumulation of liquid water or ice under the surface of Mars.

Now, InSight has drilled a hole only 50 cm deep when the drill hit an obstacle, and the mission team decided to stop this process for a while. The analysis showed that the barrier is not a boulder, but a layer of duricrust. Engineers believe that the drill will be able to overcome it, but due to the spillage of the well, the return of the tool will inevitably fall.

Now the researchers will raise InSight slightly with the IDA (Instrument Deployment Arm) robotic arm, thereby compensating for recoil upon impact. It is likely that there is insufficient adhesion between the drill bit and the surrounding soil due to the hole being backfilled with clastic material. According to plans, the InSight lift-off process will take place in several stages starting in late June 2019.

In March, the InSight seismometer already recorded the first tremor with an amplitude of 2.5 points, while science is not the first time trying to record earthquakes on the Red Planet. In 1975, the Viking-1 and Viking-2 rovers were launched to Mars with similar missions, but the seismometer did not work on the first device, and on the second it did not have sufficient sensitivity, since it was installed in the probe itself and not in the Martian soil.

Chang’e 4

In early January 2019, the Chinese probe Chang’e 4 landed for the first time on the far side of the moon in the Von Karma crater, one of the most unexplored areas on the surface of the Earth’s satellite, almost 2,000 km long and upwards. to 10 km depth. It is planned that Chang’e 4 will not bring anything to Earth from the far surface of the Moon – this would be too complicated and expensive a mission.

Chang’e 4 will study the interior of the moon from the other side thanks to a powerful radar, as well as a mobile laboratory. The rover also delivered an aluminum container containing mustard seeds, potatoes and silkworm eggs to the moon, and scientists reported that they were able to germinate one of the cotton seeds. But with the beginning of the first lunar night – on January 12, a few days after landing, the rover went into hibernation and the experiment had to be stopped.

The rover will transmit all the information received to the lunar artificial satellite as it flies over its location, and the signal from the satellite will already go to the mission team. In addition, China has another satellite, Queqiao, located at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point at a distance of 37,000 km from Earth. This will also allow for faster transmission of signals to Earth. You can read more about how Lagrange points work and why there is no gravity in them in a special study by Hi-Tech.

In addition to scientific tasks, the mission allowed China to test the possibilities in the implementation of space communication systems.

Now Chinese engineers intend to build the Chang’e 5 mission, the first probe to return from the moon in the country’s history, which should yield more than 2 kg of lunar soil. The launch of the assignment is planned for December 2019.

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