Space Exploration Chronology: 1980-1989 | Shuttle STS-1 | The Grand Tour: Voyager 1 & 2 | Halley Comet 1986



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1981

Space Shuttle's first mission STS-1 resumes American manned space program

Space Shuttle's first takeoff
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
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Mission launched April 12, 1981
Returned to Earth April 14, 1981
Objectives Conduct successful test of a radically new spacecraft, the Space Shuttle and all of its systems
Results STS-1 mission was a success. The Shuttle proved itself fully capable of accomplishing designated tasks. The Shuttle, though gradually modernized, served for 30 years, carrying cargo and astronauts into the orbit, until 2011.


The concept of the Space Shuttle dates to the mid 1950's when American engineers introduced the idea of a spacecraft capable of returning to a horizontal landing, like an airplane. The basic design quickly took shape with an understanding that the landing of the spacecraft is going to be unpowered. It was President Richard Nixon, in 1969, that gave the project a green light. Development took over a decade and was comparable, in magnitude, to the Apollo Moon Landing project of the 1960's. In 1974 an experimental aircraft Martin Marietta X-24A demonstrated that it was indeed possible for an unpowered spacecraft to reenter Earth's atmosphere and land horizontally. The Space Shuttle was a first spacecraft designed by mankind to be reusable. The Shuttle was launched vertically, like a conventional rocket, but landed horizontally. Only the external tank was expendable. The Shuttle was intended to have provided greater payload capabilities and cheaper costs, due to its reusability. The validity of the latter, eventually, came into question. Later criticism called the program unnecessary and stressed that the funds could have been used for space exploration, primarily for sending a manned mission to Mars. Nevertheless, the Shuttle Space Program is largely considered to be a success.

Click here to download detailed account of STS-1 mission, published by NASA on its 10th Anniversary, in 1991

Click here for access to an STS-1 mission dedicated NASA web page for more information


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1986

Halley Comet is examined by six probes


Giotto Space Probe images of Comet Halley, 1986.
Credit: ESA


Halley Comet (or Comet Halley) is visible from Earth every 75 to 76 years, which is why it is the first comet to be recorded and seen by humanity. It is named after an English astronomer Edmond Halley, that calculated its periodicity in 1705. In 1986 Halley Comet was on its closest to Earth approach in inner Solar System. For the first time in human history, mankind was capable of sending probes to examine it. This international series of probes became known as the Halley Armada.


Credit: KurdstanPlanetarium on YouTube

European Space Agency sent the Giotto probe, which took close up color images of the comet's nucleus, which you can see on the pictures above. Soviet Union, in cooperation with France, sent Vega 1 and Vega 2 probes, which took extensive scientific measurements on the composition of the comet as well as its interaction with the solar wind. Japan sent two probes, Suisei and Sakigake, the latter became the first Japanese probe to venture beyond what is called Earth System. Japanese mission was as much scientific probing as testing of technological capabilities. Ultra-violet images were taken to study the comet's interaction with Sun's corona.
NASA's International Cometary Explorer, which was launched in 1978, also took measurements of the Halley Comet, as it traveled through its tail in late March of 1986. However, the distance from the nucleus was greater than that experienced by other probes. Halley was not primary objective of the NASA probe.


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1979-1989

The Grand Tour of the Outer Planets by Voyagers 1 & 2

Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
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Mission launched Voyager 2: August 20, 1977
Voyager 1: September 5, 1977
Destination reached Voyager 2 reached closest proximity to Jupiter on July 9, 1979. Saturn on August 26, 1981. Uranus on January 24, 1986. Neptune on August 25, 1989.

Voyager 1 reached closest proximity to Jupiter on March 5, 1979. Saturn on November 12, 1980.
Objectives Study Jupiter, Saturn and their moons.
Results Results of the two Voyager spacecraft missions far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Voyager 2 became the first, and so far the only, human made spacecraft to arrive at, and study, Uranus and Neptune. Data collected by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 literally transformed the content of the textbooks. Solar System was learned to be far more diverse than was thought at the time.

Among some of the major discoveries were: rings around Jupiter, similar to those of Saturn. Active volcanic activity on a Jupiterís moon Io. Jupiterís Great Red Spot was discovered to be a complex storm that has lasted for approximately 300 years. Europa, Jupiterís moon, emerged as one of the likeliest extraterrestrial bodies suitable for life, due to linear ice cracks all around the moonís surface, indicating a liquid, underground ocean of water.Additional natural satellites Adrastea, Metis and Thebe were discovered.

Saturnís pressure and temperature measured. Vital information regarding Titan and Enceladus, Saturnís moons, was transmitted. Both of these moons would later on prove to be of highest interest, thanks to their unique properties. Follow-up mission, Huygens-Cassini, was realized thanks to observations made by the Voyagers.

Previously unknown moons of Uranus were discovered. Theoretical history of Uranus emerged, due to its unusual orbiting tilt. The planetís moon Miranda became a focus of extensive speculation by scientists for decades to come, mainly due to its unusual surface features, such as deep canyons. The ring system of Uranus was discovered to be unique, unlike the systems found earlier at Saturn and Jupiter. It emerged after the formation of the planet, possibly as a result of a massive collision.

Basic atmospheric observations and measurements of Neptune were performed. Abundance of methane gas in the planetís atmosphere is responsible for the blue color of the planet when viewed from space. The gas absorbs red light while reflecting blue light. Voyager 2 had also corrected previous calculations regarding the mass of the planet. Previous, incorrect, measurements of the planetary mass were regarded as evidence for a possibility of a mysterious planet yet to be discovered within our Solar System.

Extended interstellar mission Voyager Interstellar Mission began in 1989. It will end when all instruments fail around 2025. The actual spacecrafts, however, will continue their interstellar flight. Voyager 1 is expected to come relatively close to a AC+79 3888 star, in about 40000 years.

Once all scientific instruments go offline, the Voyagers will continue on, possibly for eternity, as ambassadors of Earth. NASA hopes that an Alien civilization will stumble upon them, recover their messages from Earth and utilize them for establishing first contact with our species. It is possible that by the time the messages from Voyagers are recovered by Alien species, humanity would no longer exist in the form that we recognize today.



Enjoy watching this NASA simulation of the Voyager's excursion in HD quality:

Voyager 1 & 2 spacecrafts are considered by many to be the tools of a greatest quest for exploration ever undertaken by mankind. They have beamed spectacular images of the gas giants and their moons back to Earth. They had invigorated public interest in cosmic discoveries. When it was time to receive first images of a distant world, ordinary people flocked to planetariums to become witnesses to these historic events. Before the Voyagers, our perception of the Solar System was vague and far less complete. Even three decades after the launch the data sent back, over billions of miles, helps us to understand the boundaries of our star system.

A fascinating aspect of the Voyagers is their intended role as ambassadors of Earth. NASA scientists, including Carl Sagan, had attached a disc to the side of each spacecraft, for intelligent extraterrestrials to discover. On that disc are images, voices, music and scientific information regarding our unique, little planet. There are instructions how to read the information off of it and astronomical directions where to find us. This part of the extended mission will go on for thousands, millions and even billions of years. We do not know when, or if, these interstellar travelers will be recovered by Alien species. We can hypothesize that the legacy of humanity recorded on them, will be as distant from contemporary reality as images of ancient Egyptians are to us today. *


Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
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Sources
  1. Voyager: The Insterstellar Mission
  2. List item 2
  3. List item 3
  4. List item 4

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