David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.
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.
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.
All of these parts of space exploration missions can contain lots of equipment to collect data. They can have cameras to take photos, spectrometers to figure out chemical composition, thermometers to measure temperature, and radiometers to measure how much radiation is present. We've sent people to the Moon, rovers to Mars and certain asteroids, and orbiters and fly-bys to all of the other planets. We know so much more about our solar system thanks to our exploration technology.
If we can't get there, we can at least take a look. The nearest star, apart from the sun, is 4.24 light years away, which would take tens of thousands of years to reach. Our galaxy is at least 100,000 light years across. These distances are literally astronomical, and we might never make it to any of these places unless our technology improves immensely.
For now, though, we can look. And we look using telescopes. We have telescopes with lenses or mirrors that magnify the stars and galaxies to make larger images. We even have telescopes that use light that humans can't normally see: infrared, radio waves, ultraviolet, x-rays, and others. We've even started putting telescopes in space to avoid the effects of Earth's atmosphere. An example of this would be the Hubble Space Telescope. Together these technologies have allowed us to see billions of galaxies in the sky and learn all kinds of things about how our universe works.
Humans have always had an urge to explore. We do it for many reasons: curiosity, improving technology, expanding our knowledge, and safeguarding our future. We explore in many ways: in person, using space probes, and using telescopes.
Space probes have many types and parts:
- Fly-by missions pass nearby planets and moons and take data from a distance
- Orbiters are parts of missions designed to stay in orbit
- Landers are parts of missions intended to land on a planet or moon
- Rovers are vehicles designed to travel across a planet or moon's surface
Missions often involve several of these parts: a mission might fly by one planet, orbit another, eject a lander onto the planet, and that lander might contain a rover. We also use telescopes to look at parts of the universe we can't reach ourselves. Together these pieces of technology help us learn a lot about the universe while advancing human interests.
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