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space exploration

space exploration, the investigation of physical conditions in space and on stars, planets, and other celestial bodies through the use of artificial satellites (spacecraft that orbit the earth), space probes (spacecraft that pass through the solar system and that may or may not orbit another celestial body), and spacecraft with human crews.

Satellites and Probes

Although studies from earth using optical and radio telescopes had accumulated much data on the nature of celestial bodies, it was not until after World War II that the development of powerful rockets made direct space exploration a technological possibility. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was launched by the USSR (now Russia) on Oct. 4, 1957, and spurred the dormant U.S. program into action, leading to an international competition popularly known as the “space race.” Explorer I, the first American satellite, was launched on Jan. 31, 1958. Although earth-orbiting satellites have by far accounted for the great majority of launches in the space program, even more information on the moon, other planets, and the sun has been acquired by space probes.

Lunar Probes

In the decade following Sputnik I, the United States and the USSR between them launched about 50 space probes to explore the moon. The first probes were intended either to pass very close to the moon (flyby) or to crash into it (hard landing). Later probes made soft landings with instruments intact and achieved stable orbits around the moon. Each of these four objectives required increasingly greater rocket power and more precise maneuvering; successive launches in the Soviet Luna series were the first to accomplish each objective. Luna 2 made a hard lunar landing in Sept., 1959, and Luna 3 took pictures of the moon's far side as the probe flew by in Nov., 1959. Luna 9 soft-landed in Feb., 1966, and Luna 10 orbited the moon in Apr., 1966; both sent back many television pictures to earth. Beginning with Luna 16, which was launched in Sept., 1970, the USSR sent several probes to the moon that either returned lunar soil samples to earth or deployed Lunokhod rovers. In addition to the 24 lunar probes in the Luna program, the Soviets also launched five circumlunar probes in its Zond program.

Early American successes generally lagged behind Soviet accomplishments by several months but provided more detailed scientific information. The U.S. program did not bear fruit until 1964, when Rangers 7, 8, and 9 transmitted thousands of pictures, many taken at altitudes of less than 1 mi (1.6 km) just before impact and showing craters only a few feet in diameter. Two years later, the Surveyor series began a program of soft landings on the moon. Surveyor 1 touched down in June, 1966; in addition to television cameras, it carried instruments to measure soil strength and composition. The Surveyor program established that the moon's surface was solid enough to support a spacecraft carrying astronauts.

In Aug., 1966, the United States successfully launched the first Lunar Orbiter, which took pictures of both sides of the moon as well as the first pictures of the earth from the moon's vicinity. The Orbiter's primary mission was to locate suitable landing sites for the Apollo Lunar Module, but in the process it also discovered the lunar mascons, regions of large concentration of mass on the moon's surface. Between May, 1966, and Nov., 1968, the United States launched seven Surveyors and five Lunar Orbiters. Clementine, launched in 1994, engaged in a systematic mapping of the lunar surface. In 1998, Lunar Prospector orbited the moon in a low polar orbit investigating possible polar ice deposits, but a controlled crash near the south pole detected no water. The U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, was designed to collect data that can be used to prepare for future missions to the moon; information from it has been used to produce a relatively detailed, nearly complete topographic map of the moon.

China became the third nation to send a spacecraft to the moon when Chang'e 1, which was launched in 2007, orbited and mapped the moon until it was crash-landed on the lunar surface in 2009. Chang'e 2 also orbited and mapped the moon (2010–11) and later conducted a flyby of an asteroid (2012). In Dec., 2013, Chang'e 3 landed on the moon and deployed a rover, Yutu, or Jade Rabbit (2013–16); in Jan., 2018, Chang'e 4 put the first lander on the far side of the moon; and in Dec., 2020, Chang'e 5 returned lunar rock samples to earth.

Interplanetary Probes

While the bulk of space exploration initially was directed at the earth-moon system, the focus gradually shifted to other members of the solar system. The U.S. Mariner program studied Venus and Mars, the two planets closest to the earth; the Soviet Venera series also studied Venus. From 1962 to 1971, these probes confirmed the high surface temperature and thick atmosphere of Venus, discovered signs of recent volcanism and possible water erosion on Mars, and investigated Mercury. Between 1971 and 1973 the Soviet Union launched six successful probes as part of its Mars program. Exploration of Mars continued with the U.S. Viking landings on the Martian surface. Two Viking spacecraft arrived on Mars in 1976. Their mechanical arms scooped up soil samples for automated tests that searched for photosynthesis, respiration, and metabolism by any microorganisms that might be present; one test suggested at least the possibility of organic activity. The Soviet Phobos 1 and 2 missions were unsuccessful in 1988. The U.S. Magellan spacecraft succeeded in orbiting Venus in 1990, returning a complete radar map of the planet's hidden surface. The Japanese probes Sakigake and Suisei and the European Space Agency's probe Giotto both rendezvoused with Halley's comet in 1986, and Giotto also came within 125 mi (200 km) of the nucleus of the comet Grigg-Skjellerup in 1992. The U.S. probe Ulysses returned data about the poles of the sun in 1994, and the ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was put into orbit in 1995. Launched in 1996 to study asteroids and comets, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) probe made flybys of the asteroids Mathilde (1997) and Eros (1999) and began orbiting the latter in 2000. The Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor, both of which reached Mars in 1997, were highly successful, the former in analyzing the Martian surface and the latter in mapping it. The ESA Mars Express, launched in 2003, began orbiting Mars later that year, and although its Beagle 2 lander failed to establish contact, the orbiter has sent back data. Spirit and Opportunity, NASA rovers, landed successfully on Mars in 2004, as did the NASA rover Curiosity in 2012, and InSight in 2018, along with two flyby satellites called MarCO. NASA launched an upper atmosphere probe named MAVEN that reached the planet in September 2014; that same month, India joined the Russians, USA, and ESA by placing the probe Mangalyaan into Mars’ orbit. The Europeans and Russians joined together to launch the ExcoMars Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit in October 1916, but its accompanying landing vehicle was destroyed on impacting the planet’s surface. In July 2020, Mars 2020 was launched by NASA carrying the Perseverance rover, which landed on the planet’s surface on February 18, 2021. Earlier in that month, the Chinese mission Tianwen-1 began orbiting the planet with a planned landing of its rover, Zhurong (the name of the fire-god in Chinese folklore), in spring 2021, while the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars Mission was also in orbit. Messenger, also launched by NASA, became the first space probe to orbit Mercury in 2011; its mission ended in 2015. In 2014 the ESA's Rosetta became the first probe to orbit a comet (Comet 67P, which it then studied for two years); prior to that rendezvous the space probe had made flybys of Mars and two asteroids.

Space probes have also been aimed at the outer planets, with spectacular results. One such probe, Pioneer 10, passed through the asteroid belt in 1973, then became the first object made by human beings to move beyond the orbits of the planets. In 1974, Pioneer 11 photographed Jupiter's equatorial latitudes and its moons, and in 1979 it made the first direct observations of Saturn. Voyagers 1 and 2, which were launched in 1977, took advantage of a rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune to explore all four planets. Passing as close as 3,000 mi (4,800 km) to each planet's surface, the Voyagers discovered new rings, explored complex magnetic fields, and returned detailed photographs of the outer planets and their unique moons. They subsequently moved toward the heliopause, the boundary between the influence of the sun's magnetic field and the interstellar magnetic field, and in 2013 NASA reported that Voyager 1 most likely crossed the heliopause in 2012 and entered interstellar space, becoming the first spacecraft to do so. Voyager 2 entered interstellar space in 2018.

Launched in 1989, NASA's Galileo spacecraft followed a circuitous route that enabled it to return data about Venus (1990), the moon (1992), and the asteroids 951 Gaspra (1991) and 243 Ida (1993) before it orbited Jupiter (1995–2003); it also returned data about the Jupiter's atmosphere and its largest moons (Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto). NASA returned to Jupiter in 2016 with Juno (launched 2011); its instruments are designed to examine the nature and properties of the planet. The joint U.S.-ESA Cassini mission, launched in 1997, explored Saturn, its rings, and some of its moons upon from its arrival in 2004 until it was crashed into the planet in 2017. It also deployed Huygens, which landed on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan in early 2005. Pluto was visited for the first time in 2015 by NASA's New Horizons (launched 2006); the space probe then flew by the Kuiper belt's Arrokoth, the most distant object to be visited by a space probe.

Human Space Exploration

Human spaceflight has progressed from the simple to the complex, starting with suborbital flights; subsequent highlights included the launching of a single astronaut in orbit, the launching of several astronauts in a single capsule, the rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft, the attainment of lunar orbit, and the televised landing of an astronaut on the moon. The first person in earth orbit was a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in Vostok 1 on Apr. 12, 1961. The American Mercury program had its first orbital success in Feb., 1962, when John Glenn circled the earth three times; a flight of 22 orbits was achieved by Mercury in May, 1963. In Oct., 1964, three Soviet cosmonauts were launched in a Voskhod spacecraft. During the second Voskhod flight in Mar., 1965, a cosmonaut left the capsule to make the first “walk in space.”

The first launch of the Gemini program, carrying two American astronauts, occurred a few days after the Soviet spacewalk. The United States made its first spacewalk during Gemini 4, and subsequent flights established techniques for rendezvous and docking in space. The first actual docking of two craft in space was achieved in Mar., 1966, when Gemini 8 docked with a crewless vehicle. In Oct., 1967, two Soviet Cosmos spacecraft performed the first automatic crewless rendezvous and docking. Gemini and Voskhod were followed by the American Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz programs, respectively.

The Apollo Program

In 1961, President Kennedy had committed the United States to the goal of landing astronauts on the moon and bringing them safely back to earth by the end of the decade. The resulting Apollo program was the largest scientific and technological undertaking in history. Apollo 8 was the first craft to orbit both the earth and the moon (Dec., 1968); on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. (“Buzz”) Aldrin, Jr., stepped out onto the moon, while a third astronaut, Michael Collins, orbited the moon in the command ship. In all, there were 17 Apollo missions and 6 lunar landings (1969–72). Apollo 15 marked the first use of the Lunar Rover, a jeeplike vehicle. The scientific mission of Apollo centered around an automated geophysical laboratory, ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experimental Package). Much was learned about the physical constitution and early history of the moon, including information about magnetic fields, heat flow, volcanism, and seismic activity. The total lunar rock sample returned to earth weighed nearly 900 lb (400 kg).

Apollo moon flights were launched by the three-stage Saturn V rocket, which developed 7.5 million lb (3.4 million kg) of thrust at liftoff. At launch, the total assembly stood 363 ft (110 m) high and weighed more than 3,000 tons. The Apollo spacecraft itself weighed 44 tons and stood nearly 60 ft (20 m) high. It was composed of three sections: the command, service, and lunar modules. In earth orbit, the lunar module (LM) was freed from its protective compartment and docked to the nose of the command module. Once in lunar orbit, two astronauts transferred to the LM, which then detached from the command module and descended to the lunar surface. After lunar exploration, the descent stage of the LM remained on the moon, while the ascent stage was jettisoned after returning the astronauts to the command module. The service module was jettisoned just before reentering the earth's atmosphere. Thus, of the huge craft that left the earth, only the cone-shaped command module returned.

The Soyuz Program

Until late 1969 it appeared that the USSR was also working toward landing cosmonauts on the moon. In Nov., 1968, a Soviet cosmonaut in Soyuz 3 participated in an automated rendezvous and manual approach sequence with the crewless Soyuz 2. Soyuz 4 and 5 docked in space in Jan., 1969, and two cosmonauts transferred from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4; it was the first transfer of crew members in space from separately launched vehicles. But in July, 1969, the rocket that was to power the lunar mission exploded, destroying an entire launch complex, and the USSR abandoned the goal of human lunar exploration to concentrate on orbital flights. The program suffered a further setback in June, 1971, when Soyuz 11 accidentally depressurized during reentry, killing all three cosmonauts. In July, 1975, the United States and the USSR carried out the first internationally crewed spaceflight, when an Apollo and a Soyuz spacecraft docked while in earth orbit. Later Soyuz spacecraft have been used to ferry crew members to and from Salyut, Mir, and the International Space Station.

Space Stations

After the geophysical exploration of the moon via the Apollo program was completed, the United States continued human space exploration with Skylab, an earth-orbiting space station that served as workshop and living quarters for three astronauts. The main capsule was launched by a booster; the crews arrived later in an Apollo-type craft that docked to the main capsule. Skylab had an operational lifetime of eight months, during which three three-astronaut crews remained in the space station for periods of about one month, two months, and three months. The first crew reached Skylab in May, 1972.

Skylab's scientific mission alternated between predominantly solar astrophysical research and study of the earth's natural resources; in addition, the crews evaluated their response to prolonged conditions of weightlessness. The solar observatory contained eight high-resolution telescopes, each designed to study a different part of the spectrum (e.g., visible, ultraviolet, X-ray, or infrared light). Particular attention was given to the study of solar flares (see chromosphere). The earth applications, which involved remote sensing of natural resources, relied on visible and infrared light in a technique called multispectral scanning (see space science). The data collected helped scientists to forecast crop and timber yields, locate potentially productive land, detect insect infestation, map deserts, measure snow and ice cover, locate mineral deposits, trace marine and wildlife migrations, and detect the dispersal patterns of air and water pollution. In addition, radar studies yielded information about the surface roughness and electrical properties of the sea on a global basis. Skylab fell out of orbit in July, 1979; despite diligent efforts, several large pieces of debris fell on land.

After that time the only continuing presence of humans in earth orbit were the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations, in which cosmonauts worked for periods ranging to more than 14 months. In addition to conducting remote sensing and gathering medical data, cosmonauts used their microgravity environment to produce electronic and medical artifacts impossible to create on earth. In preparation for the International Space Station (ISS)—a cooperative program of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, and the ESA—astronauts and cosmonauts from Afghanistan, Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, Syria, and the United States worked on Mir alongside their Russian counterparts. Assembly of the ISS began in Dec., 1998, with the linking of an American and a Russian module (see space station) Once the ISS was manned in 2000, maintaining Mir in orbit was no longer necessary and it was made to decay out of orbit in Mar., 2001.

The Space Shuttle

After the Skylab space station fell out of orbit in 1979, the United States did not resume sending astronauts into space until 1981, when the space shuttle, capable of ferrying people and equipment into orbit and back to earth, was launched. The shuttle itself was a hypersonic delta-wing airplane about the size of a DC-9. Takeoff was powered by three liquid-fuel engines fed from an external tank and two solid-fuel engines; the last were recovered by parachute. The shuttle itself returned to earth in a controlled glide, landing either in California or in Florida.

The shuttle put a payload of up to 25 tons (22,700 kg) in earth orbit below 600 mi (970 km); the payload was then boosted into final orbit by its own attached rocket. The Galileo probe, designed to investigate Jupiter's upper atmosphere, was launched from the space shuttle. Astronauts also used the shuttle to retrieve and repair satellites, to experiment with construction techniques needed for a permanent space station, and to conduct scientific experiments during extended periods in space.

At first it was hoped that shuttle flights could operate on a monthly basis, but schedule pressures contributed to the explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986, when cold launch conditions led to the failure of a rubber O-ring, and the resulting flame ruptured the main fuel tank. The shuttle program was suspended for three years, while the entire system was redesigned. The shuttle fleet subsequently operated on approximately a bimonthly schedule. A second accident occurred in 2003, when Columbia was lost during reentry because damaged heat shielding on the left wing, which had been damaged by insulation shed from the external fuel tank, failed to prevent superheated gas from entering the wing; the hot gas structurally weakened the wing and caused the shuttle to break up. Shuttle flights resumed in July, 2005, but new problems with fuel tank insulation led NASA to suspend shuttle launches for a year. The last shuttle flight was in July, 2011.

In 2004, President George W. Bush called for a return to the moon by 2020 and the establishment of a base there that would be used to support the human exploration of Mars. The following year NASA unveiled a $104 billion plan for a lunar expedition that resembled that Apollo program in many respects, except that two rockets would be used to launch the crew and lunar lander separately.

In June, 2004, SpaceShipOne, a privately financed spacecraft utilizing a reusable vehicle somewhat similar in concept to the shuttle, was launched into suborbital flight from the Mojave Desert in California. Unlike the shuttle, SpaceShipOne was carried aloft by a reusable jet mothership (White Knight) to 46,000 ft (13.8 km), where it was released and fires its rocket engine. The spacecraft was designed by Bert Rutan and built by his company, SCALED Composites. The vehicle's 90-minute flight was the first successful nongovernmental spaceflight. SpaceShipTwo, based on SpaceShipOne, is being developed for commercial tourist flights; it made its first powered flight in 2013. Another spacecraft was privately developed by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in coordination with NASA. The company's Falcon 9 rocket had its first successful launch, from Cape Canaveral, in June, 2010. In May, 2012, SpaceX's Dragon space capsule made its first resupply trip to the space station. Orbital Sciences Corp. (OSC) also developed a cargo capsule, Cygnus, in cooperation with NASA. OSC's Antares rocket, which is used to launch Cygnus, had its first test in Apr., 2013, and Cygnus had its first resupply flight later that year. A crew version of the Dragon first traveled to the space station in May–Aug., 2020, having undergone a crewless test flight the year before. In Dec., 2019, the Starliner, a crew capsule developed by Boeing in coordination with NASA, had its first, crewless test flight.

The Chinese Space Program

China launched its first satellite in 1970 and then began the Shuguang program to put an astronaut into space, but the program was twice halted, ending in 1980. In the 1990s, however, China began a new program, and launched the crewless Shenzhou 1, based on the Soyuz, in 1999. The Shenzhou, like the Soyuz, is capable of carrying a crew of three. In Oct., 2003, Shenzhou 5 carried a single astronaut, Yang Liwei, on a 21-hr, 14-orbit flight, making China only the third nation to place a person in orbit. A second mission, involving two astronauts, occurred in Oct., 2005. China also launched an unmanned moon mission in Oct., 2007. In June, 2012, the three-person Shenzhou 9, which included China's first woman astronaut, manually docked with the Tiangong 1 prototype space station, which had launched the year before, and the crew of Shenzhou 10 docked with the station in 2013. Tiangong 2, a testing laboratory and precursor to a more permanent space station, was launched in Sept., 2016, and the crew of Shenzhou 11 docked with the station for a monthlong mission the following month.


See T. Wolfe, The Right Stuff (repr. 1983); B. C. Murray, Journey into Space (repr. 1990); V. Neal, Where Next, Columbus?: The Future of Space Exploration (1994); J. Harford, Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (1997); T. A. Heppenheimer, Countdown: A History of Space Flight (1997); F. J. Hale, Introduction to Space Flight (1998); R. D. Launius, Frontiers of Space Exploration (1998); C. Nelson, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon (2009); A. Chaikin with V. Kohl, Voices from the Moon (2009); D. Brinkley, American Moonshoot (2019.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

outer space

[′au̇d·ər ′spās]
A general term for any region that is beyond the earth's atmosphere.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

outer space

any region of space beyond the atmosphere of the earth
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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