Where No Probe Has Gone Before

By Alexander Holst

Forty-two years ago was the last time a human set foot on the moon, marking the end of the Apollo 17 mission. Upon leaving the lunar surface on December 14th, 1972, astronaut Gene Cernan remarked
“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

In the four decades since the last Apollo Mission, humans have not travelled further than to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit. NASA’s Orion program is not scheduled to bring humans to the Moon and beyond before 2021. Until then, humanity relies on unmanned space crafts for exploring the vast unknown. And our machines have been busy:  Voyager 1, launched in 1977, was the first probe to leave the solar system and reach interstellar space in 2012. While NASA’s rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are still driving around Mars, more space crafts on their way to the Red Planet. The Juno probe is scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2016. And Saturn has been orbited by Cassini for over 10 years.

Last month, Philae, part of the European Space Agency’s mission Rosetta, was the first human-made object to land on a comet. Its arrival on the surface was bumpy. Literally. Due to malfunctioning landing harpoons, Philae bounced back twice before settling on the surface. Upon arrival, the lander did not only shoot magnificent pictures, but also began to analyze the comet’s chemical composition and internal structure.

Comets are cosmic objects consisting of rock, dust, frozen gases and water. They are considered to be primitive building blocks of the solar system. Scientists hope that data collected by Philae will lead to new insights about the birth of our planets. Comets are also suspected to have played a key role in bringing water and organic molecules to Earth, thus contributing to the conditions in which the earliest life forms could form on our home planet over 3.5 billion years ago.

A few days after its landing, Philae sent its last signal at November 15th. Having exhausted its battery, the lander went into hibernation. Scientists hope for a possible reawakening in August 2015, when the comet has travelled closer to the sun so that Philae’s solar panels might provide enough power to resume its mission. But even if Philae stays silent, exploration of space continues. On December 3rd, the Japanese Space Agency launched Hayabusa 2. The probe is scheduled to arrive at an Asteroid in 2018, retrieve material and return it to Earth in 2020. By then we may have come up with plans to follow in our probes footsteps and send out humans to travel far, far away.

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