Technologies Used to Explore Space

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Orbiters, landers, rovers, and telescopes! Learn about the many pieces of technology we use to explore space, both nearby and distant. Then take a quiz and see how well you've explored the topic.

Why Do We Explore Space?

Some people say that we need somewhere to go when the earth is no longer capable of sustaining life. Others simply like the pretty pictures NASA can produce. Some want new technologies that come from exploring the universe, like computers, cell phones, and the Internet. But whatever the reason, humans have always been interested in exploration.

As we learn more and more about the universe, our capabilities to do clever things improve along with it. In fact, that's what technology is: technology is applying scientific knowledge for specific and practical human purposes. It's really that simple. Even the wheel is an example of technology.

The computers we have today wouldn't be possible without the early computers used in the Apollo missions. And, flat-screen televisions wouldn't be possible without quantum mechanics. And if those things all seem frivolous or unimportant, take a look at all the technology inside hospitals that save people's lives daily. There are plenty of reasons for us to explore space, and the variety of reasons ranges from advancing technology to safeguarding the human race to pure curiosity.

We can then use that technology to keep exploring. We have all kinds of equipment that we employ to find out as much as we can about what's out there. In this lesson, we're going to go through some examples of that technology.

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  • 0:02 Why Do We Explore Space?
  • 1:25 Fly-bys, Orbiters,…
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Fly-Bys, Orbiters, Landers, & Rovers

While it's possible to explore the universe from a distance, there's nothing quite like getting out there ourselves. We can do that with people, like with the moon missions, or we can do that with robots. The probes we send out into the universe, usually to explore the other planets, have many different types and components. The most common of these are fly-bys, orbiters, landers, and rovers.

A probe designed to fly-by simply uses the gravitational pull of a planet or moon to give itself a little speed boost. While it's passing by, it can take some images and measurements from a distance. Examples of fly-by missions include the Voyager and Mariner probes.

An orbiter is the part of a space probe that is designed to go into orbit around a planet, moon, or other body in space. Some probes are 100% orbiter: they're specifically designed to go into orbit and take some photos.

A lander is a part of a space probe that is designed to land on a planet or moon. Usually these missions involve a combination of an orbiter and lander, with the lander part being launched from an orbiter. Landing is perhaps the most difficult part of these kinds of space missions. Many landers have been lost because of rough landings or collisions.

Last of all, we also have rovers. A rover is a vehicle designed to travel across the surface of a planet or moon to collect data. For a rover to reach the surface, the mission also has to involve a lander to get it there in the first place. Rovers tend to use solar power to keep themselves operating and can take all kinds of samples and measurements, transmitting data back to Earth.

Right now there are two rovers on Mars that are still working: Curiosity, which has been there since 2012, and Opportunity, which is still operating since landing there in 2004. Opportunity is particularly impressive in that it was only designed to operate for part of a year. Two other rovers on Mars, Spirit and Sojourner, are no longer working.

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