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Where Are We With Solar System Exploration?

April 27, 2022 - Emily Newton

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What do you see when you look up at the night sky? The exact answer will depend on where you live and the level of light pollution, but you can usually look up and see stars no matter where you are on the planet. Occasionally, you might see planets and meteors burning through the atmosphere like shooting stars or the occasional comet. While many of those stars are light-years away, many of the celestial bodies we can spot are right here in our home solar system.

We’ve taken a look at the known universe — and explored everything that we don’t know and don’t know to ask about the interstellar space that we call home — but what about our celestial neighborhood? How far have we gotten with solar system exploration, and where are we trying to reach next?

Staying Close to Home

We’ve been staring at the stars for as long as we’ve been brave enough to venture outside at night, but the history of human space exploration only dates back 65 years. The first space race between the United States and Russia started in the late 1950s. Russia — then the USSR — got there first, launching Sputnik 1, the planet’s first artificial satellite, on October 54th, 1957. The US followed quickly with Explorer 1 on February 1, 1958, and the space race was on.

It wasn’t until 1961 that Russia was able to launch Vostok 1, carrying the world’s first astronaut. Yuri Gagarin stayed in orbit for 108 minutes, a little more than one full orbit of the planet, before splashing back down. That same year, Mercury-Redstone 3 carried the first NASA astronaut, Alan Shephard, on a suborbital flight. The following year, Mercury-Atlas 6 took John Glen into orbit, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

When it comes to crewed missions, the human race hasn’t explored further than the moon, but we’ve reached the very edge of the solar system with uncrewed probes, landers and satellites. Let’s look at some uncrewed solar system exploration before we get back to the astronauts.

Uncrewed Missions by the Decade

We can dream of sending humans to every corner of the solar system and beyond, but right now, it’s safer to send uncrewed missions, especially since most of them aren’t designed to return to Earth. This isn’t a full list of uncrewed missions by any stretch of the imagination. That list would take far more space than we have here. Instead, we’ll try to highlight the most exciting things that happened in each of these decades. 

The 1950s

We didn’t have a lot of activity in the 1950s — at least until the end of the decade. 

  • Sputnik 1 took flight in 1957, marking the beginning of the space race and the launch of the first Earth orbiter.
  • Sputnik 2 took off a month later, on November 3, 1957, carrying Laika, the first dog in orbit. Unfortunately, Laika didn’t survive. 
  • Explorer 1 and Vanguard 1 both launched in 1958. Vanguard 1 is still in orbit more than six decades later.
  • Luna 1 launched in 1959, aiming for the first lunar flyby. Luna 2 and 3 also launched that year, the former becoming the first artificial satellite on the moon and the latter becoming the first craft to take pictures from the far side of the moon.

The 1960s

The 1960s were when things started to take off — both literally and figuratively. The moon was a target, but we started to explore a bit further than our own orbiting satellite.

  • Venera 1 launched in 1961 and became the first craft to probe another planet — in this case, Venus
  • NASA launched the Ranger series between 1961 and 1964, aiming for lunar impact. 
  • Mariner 2 became the first craft to encounter a planetary body — Venus again — in 1962. 
  • Mariner 4 completed a Mars flyby in 1964, becoming the first craft to manage that.
  • Venera 3 crash-landed on the surface of Venus in 1965, becoming the first craft to reach another planet’s surface.
  • Surveyor 6 became the first lunar lander to land on the Moon and lift off again in 1967.

The 1960s also brought us the Apollo missions, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

1970s 

Between the peace and love movement and the end of the Vietnam War, we still sent some craft out into the solar system. 

  • Welcome to Venus. The USSR’s Venera 7 landed on Venus in 1970 instead of crashing.
  • Mars 2, also launched by the USSR, became the first craft to impact Mars. It carried the Prop-M rover, but its crash landing aborted that mission before it began. 
  • Mars who? Pioneer 10 completed our first Jupiter flyby in 1972. Pioneer 11 completed flybys of both Jupiter and Saturn in 1973.
  • We’re not just looking out. Mariner 10 completed Lunar and Venus flybys and the first Mercury flyby in 1973.
  • Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977, completing Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune flybys before later exiting the heliosphere.

The 1980s

Welcome to the 1980s, home of big hair and even bigger celestial dreams.

  • Venera 13 recorded the first sounds on another planet during a Venus landing in 1981.
  • Japan’s Sakigake completed a flyby of Halley’s Comet in 1985.
  • The Galileo mission completed the world’s first asteroid flybys in 1989, discovering that the Gaspra asteroid has its own moon!

The 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s brought more players into the space game. Instead of just Roscosmos in Russia and NASA in the US, we started to see more missions from Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA)

  • The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 and is still sending back pictures three decades later.
  • NASA landed the first Mars Rover, Pathfinder, in 1996.
  • The Cassini-Huygens mission launched in 1997, becoming the first Saturn orbiter and first lander on the outer planets.
  • The Stardust mission launched in 1999, returning in 2006 with the first comet sample we’ve ever managed to collect.

The 2000s

Let’s go to Mars!

  • The Genesis probe returned the first solar wind samples in 2001.
  • Japan launched its Hayabusa probe in 2003, designed to land on and take samples of an asteroid before returning home in 2005.
  • The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers both launched in 2003.
  • New Horizons launched in 2006, beginning a nine-year journey to Pluto and Charon before continuing past the dwarf planets.

The 2010s

Things are starting to get exciting now.

  • NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory in 2010 to provide continuous solar monitoring.
  • The Curiosity Mars rover launched in 2011, landing on the red planet in 2012.
  • Along with Germany and France, Japan launched Hayabusa 2 to collect samples from another asteroid. It returned in 2020.
  • China’s Chang’e 4 became the first lunar lander and rover to land on the far side of the moon.

The 2020s

Finally, we’ve caught up to the present. What’s happened in the 2020s so far?

  • The Mars 2020 mission landed in 2020, carrying the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter that completed the first powered flight on another planet.
  • China’s Chang’e 5 launched in 2020 and returned lunar samples to Earth.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope launched on Christmas 2021. 

Through cameras and sensors, we’ve completed a lot of solar system exploration. When it comes to crewed missions, we haven’t traveled very far — at least not yet.

Crewed Missions

Our uncrewed missions have reached beyond the edges of our solar system — but human astronauts are still sticking close to home. Let’s briefly explore human solar system exploration.

Vostok, Mercury and Gemini: Getting Into Orbit

The first challenge in human space exploration is escaping the Earth’s gravity and making it into orbit. Roscosmos managed it first with Vostok 1 in 1961. NASA wasn’t far behind, with Alan Shepard on the Mercury-Redstone 3 in 1961 and John Glenn on the Mercury-Atlas 6 in 1962. Roscosmos completed the first spacewalk during this period on the Voskhod 2 in 1965. NASA managed the same on the Gemini 4 flight the same year.

Apollo: Reaching for the Moon

Apollo, named for the Greek God of Music and Poetry, shares his name with the first missions to the lunar surface. Of the 15 flights, six ended in lunar landings, including Apollo 11. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. The Apollo missions ended with Apollo 17 in 1975.

The Space Shuttle Program

Between 1981 and 2011, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Program. This orbital space plane was the first of its kind. Five shuttles — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor — completed a total of 135 missions. Challenger was lost during a launch in 1986 and Columbia was lost in 2003. The shuttle program came to an end in 2011.

Artemis: Returning to the Lunar Surface

The next major endeavor for solar system exploration will be the Artemis Missions. Named for the Greek goddess of the hunt and sister of Apollo, these missions aim to bring humans back to the lunar surface and set up a permanent presence on the dark side of the moon. This base and the planned Gateway station will serve as a launching point for missions further into the solar system.

Heading for the Red Planet

Once we’ve reached Mars, the next logical step is to head further into the solar system. We’ve been dreaming of colonizing Mars for decades, but until the last few years, the idea of setting up a life on another planet has been out of our reach. If the base on the Moon proves successful, we could see the first Mars missions within the next decade.

What Lies Beyond Mars

Once we’ve exhausted the inner planets, what lies beyond? There are multiple planets, hundreds of moons and thousands of asteroids in the belt between the inner and outer planets. Leaving the inner planets behind will open up an entire universe of opportunities and possibilities.

Looking Toward the Stars

We’ve spent decades working on solar system exploration, but it’s all been through probes and rovers, landers and orbiters. It will take a bit longer before we can follow in their metaphorical footsteps, but we’re taking our first steps out into the stars and we can’t wait to see where we end up in a decade or two.

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Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.

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