IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):Molly McKinney -- Co-host
[upbeat electronic music]
Molly: 50 years of exploration.
Caleb: 50 years of discovery.
Molly: 50 years of innovation.
Caleb: 50 years of breaking boundaries.
Molly: I'm Molly Mckinney.
Caleb: And I'm Caleb Kinchlow.
Molly: Join us as NASA 360 presents: “I Love the Solar System...”
Caleb: …A look back at 50 years of solar system exploration. We're all used to seeing incredible images from our cosmic backyard: neighboring planets, their moons, comets, and asteroids.
Molly: But it wasn't that long ago that places like these were nothing more than points of light through a telescope.
Caleb: So how do we get from here to here? Well, it wasn't easy.
Molly: It took hundreds of thousands of people of diverse backgrounds and expertise working across disciplines and extending through decades.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: Perhaps people don't always realize is just the enormous number of people involved in these missions and all the different kinds of skills they have.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: You know, in order to make these planetary science missions work, it takes thousands, thousands of people.
Jody Davis: Well, NASA is a very diverse place.
Dr. Noah Petro: I'm a geologist. I work with people who are, you know, atmospheric scientists.
Dr. Michael Mumma: You need someone who's skilled in molecular spectroscopy.
Dr. Noah Petro: Geochemists.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: There's mineralogists.
Dr. Michael Mumma: Folks who are skilled in measuring magnetic fields.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: There's a lot of different ways to contribute to these missions.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: We need the engineers to build the spacecraft.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: Mechanical engineers, electrical engineers.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: We need people that know the optics.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: Software people.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: All kinds of people who study science, technology, engineering, math...
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: If you're passionate about space...
Dr. Noah Petro: There's no one particular type of person that works on any planetary mission.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: And as long as you have some other talent...
Dr. Noah Petro: You get a really interesting diversity of backgrounds and expertise.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: Then we need you.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: This is an exciting way to use those skills, to explore something that no one's ever explored.
Dr. James Green: Let's just start 50 years ago. Everything we knew about the solar system came from the back end of a telescope.
Andrew Chaikin: Nothing more than fuzzy pictures from even the largest telescopes.
Dr. James Green: We were putting together a picture of what are our planets, what's the inventory of our solar system, you know, and we found the asteroid belt and the nine planets at that time.
Dr. Lori Glaze: We've come an enormous way in 50 years. It's unbelievable, the kinds of things we've discovered.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We've come from an era of pure science fiction to an era of unbelievable science fact, science reality. We have bridged that abyss.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: Every young person on the planet wanted to know and do what we were doing.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Those first flybys and encounters with planets were basically done with good engineering with our scientific eyes wired shut.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: And you were assured that whatever instrument you built, you're gonna find something new.
Dr. Jim Garvin: To go from the very early steps of just being able to get something off the launchpad in Florida away from the earth on the right trajectory to get to, you know, Venus or Mercury or Mars.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: I think all of a sudden, you know, we were really opening a new window on our universe.
Dr. Jim Garvin: The new age of "being there" planetary exploration opened with Mariner 2, a mission to the planet Venus.
Dr. James Green: Now, prior to that, we had four lunar missions that failed, and Mariner 1 didn't make it either.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: The reason Mariner 2 got to Venus is because Mariner 1 had to be blown up by the Range Safety Officer a few seconds after launch out of the cape.
Dr. Jim Garvin: So M//;[ariner 2 flew by Venus and discovered a number of things that are incredibly important. For instance, it found out that Venus didn't have a magnetic field.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Venus is a really inhospitable place.
Dr. Lori Glaze: The clouds are made of sulfuric acid. It's got runaway greenhouse, greenhouse gone wild.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: The highest temperatures of anywhere, any planet in the solar system. Actually, it even runs higher than the hot places on Mercury.
Dr. Lori Glaze: You can melt lead on the surface.
Jody Davis: It actually spins backwards, rotates backwards.
Dr. Jim Garvin: That temperature is evenly distributed around the whole planet; not only on the dayside, but on the nightside of Venus too.
Dr. Noah Petro: You have to start somewhere, and so that was an incredible accomplishment just to be able to get away from the Earth and have everything work properly.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Mariner 2 opened our eyes to the diversity of possibilities in the solar system, because before Mariner 2, people though Venus might be a place that was almost hospitable.
Dr. Lori Glaze: Up until that point, there was a lot of science fiction that there could be, beneath the clouds, a very tropical Earth-like environment.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Those first instruments from that first flyby showed us a real planet that was different, hotter, more challenging, and no less interesting.
Dr. Lori Glaze: Venus is so similar to Earth. Venus is similar in size, similar in mass, similar in location in the solar system. It should be very much like Earth, and yet Venus is nothing like Earth.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Really, what is the real Venus? We don't know. And so in today's era of planetary exploration, Venus remains one of the big enigmas and one of the places where a lot of planetary scientists think we have to get back.
Caleb: It turns out what we discover ends up leading us to new questions.
Molly: The Mariner 4 mission was the first to take us to mars, and doing so, changed everything we thought we knew about the red planet.
Dr. Jim Garvin: There is this mystery of mars. Mars is unavoidably special.
Dr. Nicky Fox: The red planet, it's so often visible in the sky that, you know, you feel like it's just over there.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Mars has been subject of a lot of speculation for a long number of years.
Dr. Jim Garvin: many astronomers in the late 1800s were seeing what they saw were little features. They eventually called them canal or canali. Those were really believed to be, by some astronomers, areas of vegetation.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Well, Mariner 4 was the first U.S. probe that actually got to Mars.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada: We found what looked like a pretty barren moon-like world.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Oh, my god. There were these big craters.
Dr. James Green: It made it look more like the moon than it did like the earth.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: there was a real change in the perception of, you know, how hospitable that the solar system off of this planet might really be or not be.
Dr. Michael Mumma: But it wasn't until Mariner 9 went into orbit around Mars that we really began to see some thrilling results.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We arrived during a global dust storm.
Dr. Michael Mumma: But when the dust cleared, then you could see that the entire surface was covered by former seas and mountains.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Yes, there are craters, but there are also spectacular regions on Mars.
Andrew Chaikin: Now we had Olympus Mons, which was three times the height of Mount Everest.
Dr. Michael Mumma: Ancient volcanoes on mars? Whoa! That means Mars was a living planet at one time.
Andrew Chaikin: You had the Valles Marineris canyon system.
Dr. James Green: It's deeper than the grand canyon, it would stretch across the united states, and is one of the most spectacular features in the solar system.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Mariner 9 and Mars gave us the hope. It gave us the hope to do Viking.
Dr. James Green: Well, Viking was a spectacular leap forward.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: It was so tremendously ambitious that we thought we could, you know, put something on the surface of another planet and, you know, just play around in the dirt.
Steve Price: I sat in a room with a lot of other engineers and scientists as the first images from the first Viking lander started to come down.
Dr. Jim Crocker: To actually see those first images coming back scan line by scan line by scan line.
Dr. Jim Garvin: The line by line by line. It was, you know, a slow buildup.
Dr. James Green: It's like any explorer going on the other side of the hill for the very first time. It's that same kind of feeling that you are seeing something that no other human has ever seen before.
Dr. Nicky Fox: I think one of the most amazing achievements of the last 50 years is actually landing the rovers on Mars.
Jody Davis: It's the mobility. It's being able to say, "hey, I want to go look at this rock over here," and drive over there.
Dr. Noah Petro: Nestle up next to a rock and measure it, identify the composition of things around the landing site.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: Now, the first rover on Mars we all know was the Pathfinder Sojourner rover, which was something about the size of a shoe box. Cute little thing, you know.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: I was one of those kids logging on to the internet, you know, refreshing the page, trying to get the next images back from Pathfinder.
Dr. Nicky Fox: It was only supposed to last a few days, and yet it lasted over a month, and, you know, to really feel like, wow, we've actually set wheel on another world was just amazing.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: Well, Mars is such a, such a fascinating planet. And the more we learn about the surface, the more indications we get that it was this warm, wet, maybe even Earth-like planet.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We continued to follow the water through the confidence we got with Pathfinder to the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the 90-day missions that were gifts that keep giving.
Dr. Noah Petro: The Mars rovers have helped us understand the history of water on mars to a great detail. They're geologists.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: They were really looking for evidence that water ever flowed on the surface of Mars, and I think we've now established that that was the case.
Fernando Abilleira: We know now that water still exists under the surface. It's just a few meters under the surface and also in the polar caps.
Dr. James Green: And water is one of those essential ingredients for life.
Dr. Jim Garvin: And that gave us the confidence then as we re-planned Mars to say, "okay, what's next?" Let's send the labs,the kind of labs that would tell us about the building blocks of life.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: The analytical instruments on the curiosity rover are the most complex specialized set of instruments ever sent to another planet.
Dr. Nicky Fox: Just the sheer feat of landing Curiosity with the sky crane and everything else that needed to work, that just blows my mind.
Jody Davis: As if we weren't spoiled enough knowing that we landed successfully, we got a picture there to prove it.
Dr. Jim Garvin: I do this constantly, thinking, "did it really happen?"
Jody Davis: It just still gives me chills.
Dr. James Green: And it's sitting right now on what we believe is an ancient riverbed.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: Oh, my god, you know, seeing that mound, that three-mile-high mountain in the middle of this crater with these, you know, valleys and networks, I mean, it was-- it's just unreal.
Dr. Jim Garvin: I mean, it is--it's like science fiction became real. We now have a smart rover on Mars that can do things that, 30 years ago, we couldn't do in Earth labs.
Andrew Chaikin: There are people working on the curiosity mission who literally weren't born when Viking landed on Mars.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: People-- I think people forget that, you know, back in the day, this --this was-- this-- well, this has never been like falling off a log. We've just made it look a lot easier.
Caleb: Don't space out.
Molly: NASA 360 will be right back.
For More Untold Stories of the Solar System, Visit: www.nasa.gov/nasa360
Caleb: If you want to look back in time to the beginning of our solar system, look no further than comets and asteroids.
Molly: These solar system time capsules have been giving away secrets of not only how our solar system formed, but also the planets that call it home.
Dr. Paul Chodas: What are the materials that form the solar system? What did it look like originally?
Lindley Johnson: Asteroids and comets are the leftover material that made up the solar system.
Dr. James Green: Some of which were made 4-plus billion years ago.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: So it turns out that these things really have a lot to do with how that the solar system has evolved.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: With respect to understanding the chemistry that happened before life emerged on the Earth, how'd we get the building blocks to the early Earth? And one of the theories is that fragments of comets and asteroids could have basically delivered and seeded the early earth with these compounds.
Andrew Chaikin: We have a chance, by studying asteroids and comets, to put our hands on relics from the time the solar system formed.
Dr. James Green: NEAR, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission was our first close-up examination ever of an asteroid.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: One of the big questions had always been, "well, is asteroid a rock pile of material, or is it actually a solid body?"
Dr. James Green: We were able to take that mission and softly land it on that surface of a huge asteroid called Eros.
Dr. Noah Petro: Well, we learned a little bit more about the geology of asteroids, and we also learned a little bit about the composition.
Dr. Jim Garvin: When we went to Vesta, most recently with the DAWN mission, we realized it is an initial building block, what we call a planetesimal. It takes many of those to get together and accrete to create the next phase, which would be a planet.
Dr. Noah Petro: we've tracked Vesta. Next stop: Ceres. Dawn is on its way to go to Ceres, the largest of asteroids, and I only expect more amazing things, but also more head-scratching things to come from that mission.
Dr. Paul Chodas: Now, comets are interesting because they are even more primitive than the asteroids.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: We sent the Stardust mission out to rendezvous with a comet.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: And this was NASA’s first cometary sample return mission. It brought back pieces of dust and volatiles--gases-- from the tail of comet Wild 2.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We're analyzing it constantly. We take it to a variety of laboratories. We dissect it. We look at every bit of it.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: And indeed, we found glycine, which is the simplest and most abundant amino acid in life on Earth, in these cometary materials. So it provided the first evidence that comets could have seeded the early Earth with some of the ingredients of life.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Deep Impact was a fabulous mission: the concept of being able to fly by a comet, but drop off an impacter.
Lindley Johnson: It impacted the comet so it would blow out some of the material of the comet so we could then examine it with a flyby. Scientists will be studying that, you know, and learning about the nature of the comet for years from the data that was returned.
Dr. Noah Petro: You know, I had my predisposition about comets in that they were kind of uninteresting kind of chunks of stuff hurdling around the solar system, and then you get these incredible pictures back that show that comets are these incredibly diverse geologically significant bodies that have craters and faults and folds.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: One of the exciting missions that's due to launch here in a few years is called OSIRIS-REX, which is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission. We're gonna, you know, fly to this asteroid. We're gonna orbit it for about year, map it, figure out a good place to touch down, and then just kind of gently coast down to the surface and do this quick touch-and-go and collect a surface regolith from this asteroid.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We'll bring it back to the labs to study. I mean, that will be like bringing back the moon rocks, but we'll do it for a primitive object. Awesome.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: It's this continuation of trying to figure out how you put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
For More Untold Stories of the Solar System, Visit: www.nasa.gov/nasa360
Caleb: Out beyond the asteroid belt lie the behemoths of our solar system: the gas giants.
Molly: And NASA has sent a series of spacecraft over the years that have revealed some surprising secrets of the outer solar system.
Dr. Jim Garvin: The next wave of discovery and beyond Mars was the outer planets.
Lindley Johnson: Pioneer 10 and pioneer 11 were, you know, the first two spacecraft to actually cross the asteroid belt.
Dr. James Green: Our first foray into the outer planets.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We were able to go and see these gas giant worlds for the first time by actually being there. What the mission did was not solve all the questions. What it did was, it raised the right ones to ask next.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Voyager just blazed a trail of, you know, new knowledge throughout the entire solar system.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: The grand tour of the solar system, right? These planets only align, I think, every 176 years. So there was that one shot in 1977 to do it.
Dr. Lori Glaze: When voyager observed Io, the moon of Jupiter... -
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Was it a rotten orange or a pizza pie?
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: And one of the graduate students noticed this protrusion at the edge of Io and said, "look at that!" he said, [gasps] "volcanoes!"
Dr. Jim Garvin: Hmm, not seen anything like this. Oh, gee, except on Earth when volcanoes erupt.
Dr. Lori Glaze: Io is the most volcanically active body in the entire solar system.
Dr. Jim Garvin: One of those "oh, my god" moments. We have something new.
Dr. James Green: Rather unexpected indeed.
Andrew Chaikin: It was this long odyssey from one world to another over decades.
Lindley Johnson: We had close-ups of all of Jupiter's large satellites. -
Dr. Jim Garvin: Voyager did that. It of course went to Saturn and saw the myriad of moons.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: And then of course, you know, Voyager 2 went on to Uranus and Neptune, and 99.9% of everything the human race knows about Uranus and Neptune was learned as a result of those two Voyager 2 flybys.
Dr. Nicky Fox: And then it's just kept going and going and going.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Remember, these spacecraft are still working right now. They were lunched in august and September of 1977.
Dr. Nicky Fox: And going and going.
Andrew Chaikin: It's still sending back data from the very edge of what we would call the solar system.
Dr. Nicky Fox: And going and going.
Dr. Lori Glaze: To imagine that this little tiny spacecraft is just trudging along and then reaching the outer limits of our solar system.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Those missions begat the next phase of exploration of the outer solar system with, of course, Galileo and Jupiter.
Dr. James Green: We now knew we needed to get back to Jupiter and get into orbit.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Galileo had a problem with unfurling its giant, you know, 12-foot antenna.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: All of a sudden, instead of 100,000 bits per second, we could only transmit 10 or 20 bits per second.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We figured out a work-around to still capture the critical data even at a data rate that today would frustrate the kids of the world.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: And nevertheless, we learned a lot of things by virtue of the fact that we were in orbit around the planet. We stayed there for a long time. So that was a terrific mission.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: One of the missions that sticks out is actually a recent mission, the Cassini-Huygens mission.
Andrew Chaikin: Cassini is like the world series of planetary exploration.
Dr. Nicky Fox: Cassini gave us our first sort of close-up real images of the planet Saturn.
Lindley Johnson: You must think of Saturn and its satellites as a planetary system.
Jody Davis: You get this unprecedented look at Saturn's moon Titan.
Andrew Chaikin: And then it drops off this probe called Huygens that actually lands on Titan and sends back images from the surface with these little icy cobbles.
Lindley Johnson: I mean, Titan is another world with meteorology on it.
Dr. Jim Garvin: And it's raining methane in the southern hemisphere right now.
Andrew Chaikin: And we see lakes of liquid hydrocarbon on the surface of Titan.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: Nature seems to be far more imaginative than we are.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: The real sleeper on the Cassini mission is Enceladus.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: During the flyby, we found this plume of ices emanating from the south pole.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: These incredible geysers that are erupting ices and water and ammonia.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: But more importantly, the mass spectrometer on the mission found simple organic compounds: hydrocarbons.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: One of the things that you need for life is water, and you need organics, and it's interesting because these plumes that are coming from the south pole of Enceladus seem to have a little bit of both.
Dr. James Green: Many people ask NASA, "wow, what do you think, is Pluto a planet or not?"
Dr. Lori Glaze: Whether it's a planet or not and whether, you know, whether we grew up with Pluto being a planet.
Dr. James Green: Our opinion is: we don't care. It's an object worthy of study.
Dr. Lori Glaze: This is really kind of the last outpost in our solar system.
Dr. Jim Garvin: And new horizons is gonna fly by Pluto and all the other moons in July 2015.
Dr. Noah Petro: Being able to finally resolve the surface of Pluto and its number of moons-- its growing number of moons-- that's certainly gonna be really cool.
Dr. James Green: And that's really incredibly fascinating that even today we're finding new things about our solar system.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: It really is sort of the final voyage of discovery of looking at this first piece of what is really out there in the depths of the dark.
Caleb: With 50 years of solar system exploration under our belts, each new discovery raises more questions than answers.
Molly: So what's next? NASA will continue to raise the bar as it further expands our understanding of the solar system around us as well as our place within it.
Dr. Jim Garvin: We have flown by. We've orbited. We've landed. We've roved. And we have returned samples.
Dr. Michael Mumma: We have come so far in our understanding, and yet we have so far to go. There's so many questions we don't have answers to yet.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: Can you imagine, if we never explored, where we would be as a species?
Jody Davis: I think we explore because it's in our bones. I think it's something that humans were born to do.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: I think we explore because we're alive. I think it is the nature of life to explore.
Dr. Nicky Fox: Humans are just naturally curious. We always want to know more, and I think that every time we do a mission, instead of answering all of our questions, it actually opens up more questions to us.
Dr. James Green: And in fact, there's a major realization going on now that the solar system is still evolving. It's still changing in major ways.
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis: And it turns out that we continue to learn things about our own planet by looking at the other planets.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: We look at Venus, one of our nearest neighbors, and that has profound implications for climate change, for the greenhouse effect.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: Understanding about chlorofluorocarbons and their role in ozone destruction actually came out of the planetary program trying to understand what exactly was going on with the upper atmosphere of Venus.
Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman: The things we learn about Titan and its atmosphere are having strong influences on how we understand Earth's atmosphere evolved.
Dr. Noah Petro: Earth is an incredibly special place, and the more we study these other planets, the more I think we appreciate how really special the Earth is.
Dr. Daniel Glavin: For me, I think exploration boils down to one thing: our curiosity, you know, the ultimate question. Are we really alone here? I know I don't want to be.
Dr. Jim Garvin: How do we detect the fingerprints of biology off planet Earth on really tough places?
Steve Price: Whether we're looking for life in the sedimentary layers on Mars or in the oceans of Europa or trying to find the pale blue dots around other stars.
Dr. James Green: Is there life beyond Earth? And to understand that, we have to understand how the origin and evolution of the solar system has got us to where we are today.
Andrew Chaikin: Everywhere we turn, the solar system is trying to tell us, "you know, "if you think you've got it all figured out, you better think again."
Dr. Ralph McNutt: All this eventually informs us about where this little blue dot that we live on came from, and that's what all of this is all about.
Caleb: It took over 60 years to go from the Wright brothers' first powered flight to landing humans on the moon.
Molly: And in just 50 years, we've gone from the first successful planetary mission to the Voyager spacecraft reaching the very outer edges of our solar system.
Caleb: Now, imagine what's possible in the next 50 years.
Molly: That's right. Well, that's it for today. I'm Molly Mckinney.
Caleb: And I'm Caleb Kinchlow.
Molly: Thanks for watching NASA 360 presents: I Love the Solar System.
The Story Continues: www.nasa.gov/nasa360
Dr. Daniel Glavin: I love the solar system because there's so much of it that we haven't explored yet. There's so much left to do.
Dr. Stephanie Getty: I love the solar system because the more we learn about it, the more questions we have and the more work we have to do.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: I love the solar system because it is a challenge.
Dr. Jim Garvin: Because it's home, because it never ever ceases to wonder.
Dr. Ralph McNutt: You know, I've always thought that knowledge is better than the alternative.
Dr. Nicky Fox: I love the solar system because it's there, because it's there to explore, because every time we think we've found something out, we've just opened up a whole new box of new discoveries to make.
Andrew Chaikin: What I love about solar system exploration is that they're not just individual worlds. They all fit together. They all tell a story that is truly mind-boggling.
Dr. Lori Glaze: I love the solar system because there are so many elements out there that are similar to things that we know and understand on earth and yet none of them are the same.
Andrew Chaikin: Because we, like detectives -- we are, are cosmic detectives, and we can go in and read these clues.
Dr. Nicky Fox: I love the solar system because it's where we live. It guides -- it shapes our planet. It's, you know, it's where we were born.
Dr. James Green: well, I love the solar system because it's ours. Let's take it!