To my mind, "standard orbit, Mr. Sulu" are more exciting words than "beam me up, Scotty." An orbit contains a promise of ongoing excitement and adventure: When a spacecraft settles into orbit around another world, that means we have come to stay and explore, not just snap a few quick pictures and move on (maybe pausing briefly to break the Prime Directive). Two recent historic achievements speak to the thrill of the orbit, and its importance in establishing humans as a truly space-faring species.
Sulu didn't have the best catchphrase, but maybe the most important job. (Credit: Paramount/Desilu) The first, obviously, is India's Mars Orbital Probe--also known as Mangalyaan, "Mars craft" in Sanskrit--which began circling the Red Planet earlier this week. With this achievement, India has taken its first step into deep space, joining the United States, Russia, and the multi-nation European Space Agency (ESA) at Mars. Expect more company soon. China aimed for Mars in 2011 but missed when Yinghou-1's Russian rocket malfunctioned; the nation plans to try again in 2015. Japan also failed in its first Mars attempt, but will join with the ESA to send the BepiColombo probe into orbit around Mercury. Several private ventures--most notably the B612 Foundation and Mars One--have their own deep space missions under development. Private orbiters are not on the agenda, yet. They will be soon. The other big news-maker is the ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, the first one ever to orbit a comet. This truly is uncharted territory. Flight controllers had to map out a path that looks more like a drunken attempt at Spirgraph than a traditional loop in order to deal with the delicate challenge of settling into orbit around tiny Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (you can just call it 67P to save your breath), which measures just 2.2 x 2.5 miles. As Rosetta edges closer and closer the images just keep getting more spectacular, leading up to a dramatic climax later this fall.
Rosetta, making its historic orbit around a comet, drops the Philae probe. (The comet image is real, the rest illustration.) Credit: ESA/MPS–J. Huart On November 12, Rosetta will drop a small lander, Philae, on a part of the comet called Site J. Once there, Philae will survey the comet's landscape, study its surface, and drill down to examine its inner composition and structure. All the while Rosetta will continue to circle overhead, taking in the big picture of how the frozen comet changes in response to heating from the sun. Comet 67P is the 11th object in the solar system orbited by a spacecraft. What are the other 10? I'll talk about them in detail in my next post. Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell