Sunday, August 1, 2010

Confessions of a Selective Technophile

I was twelve years old when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik I satellite.  The date was October 4, 1957.  The news shook the world, which was in the grips of the Cold War, and set off the space race.  For me it was mesmerizing and enthralling.  I remember lying in bed unable to sleep, listening to the signals from Sputnik being broadcast over the radio as the satellite passed over the U.S.  It was incredibly exciting to think that there was an object made by human beings circling the earth miles above my head.

By today's standards Sputnik I was a puny payload -- about the size of a beach ball and weighing 189 pounds.  But in those days that was huge, and suggested that the Soviets had powerful rockets that could also launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Then they upped the anti by launching a second satellite just a month later which was not only heavier by far, it also carried a live passenger -- a dog named Laika.  The U.S. had been working on a satellite, but had to rush to get it into orbit.  The first attempt in December ended after two seconds with an embarrassing explosion, or as the spin doctors described it, "rapid burning."  Success came on January 31, 1958 with the launch of the 31-pound Explorer I.

Fast forward fifty+ years.  The U.S. eventually won the Space Race and the Cold War, with some stunning technological achievements along the way, including landing a human on the moon.  We all can appreciate the moon landing and other manned missions because of the demonstrable element of danger and our personal identification with the astronauts.  But for me some of the unmanned missions illustrate the greatest technological achievements precisely because they were accomplished without humans on board.  There are many examples, such as the Mariner 2 probe to Venus,  the Lunar Surveyors,  the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Rovers, and the remarkable Voyagers I and II, which have been operating for over 33 years and are still communicating from 14 and 17 billion kilometers away.

But the one that still leaves me awestruck is the Galileo mission to Jupiter, mainly because of the difficulties that were overcome during the mission and because the probe was so resilient -- an interplanetary Energizer Bunny that kept going and going no matter what.  The Galileo probe was launched in 1989, and took 6 years to arrive at its destination.  Several technical problems developed on the way, but engineers managed to overcome them.  Once at Jupiter Galileo fulfilled its intended two-year mission, then continued to operate for another six years,  far surpassing its design parameters and surviving some of the harshest conditions imaginable from radiation around Jupiter's moons  It was intentionally crashed into the planet in 2003,  providing valuable scientific data right up to the end.

Galileo Photo of Ice Flows on Europa
 The scientific achievements of Galileo were very impressive.  On the way to Jupiter it flew close to two asteroids, Gaspra and Ida, the first spacecraft to visit an asteroid.  Galileo discovered that tiny Ida had an even tinier moon.  As it neared its destination, Galileo was able to observe and photograph in great detail the collisions of fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter.  During its six years in the Jovian system Galileo discovered strong evidence that Jupiter's moon Europa has a melted saltwater ocean under an ice layer on its surface, and found indications that two other moons, Ganymede and Callisto, have layers of liquid saltwater as well. Other major science results were observations of varied and extensive volcanic processes on the moon Io, measurements of conditions within Jupiter's atmosphere, and discovery of a magnetic field generated by Ganymede.

Galileo Photos of an Active Volcano on Io
The problems Galileo faced began early on, when its high-gain antenna failed to open fully.  This forced mission engineers to use the low-gain backup antenna, which reduced the data transmission rate to only 8-16 bits per second (sloooowwww),  later increased by various work-arounds to a still-glacial 160 bits per second, about 1/1000 of the high-gain speed.  This limitation made the data that was returned, especially the approximately 14,000 photos that were sent back, even more impressive.  And the signal was transmitted with only 20 watts of power!  Another problem that occurred before Galileo reached Jupiter was with the onboard tape recorder (parents, explain to your children that back in the olden days we actually recorded data on long strips of tape....)  that stored data for later transmission back to earth.  The recorder became stuck in rewind mode and damaged a section of tape near the end.  Engineers overcame the rewind problem and instructed the recorder not to use the damaged section of tape.  The recorder was also damaged late in the mission by high radiation near the moon Almathea, but this, too was overcome.

Other difficulties from radiation exposure were encountered, but none of them stopped the Bunny:
The uniquely harsh radiation environment at Jupiter caused over 20 anomalies in addition to the incidents expanded upon above. Despite exceeding its radiation design limit by at least a factor of three, the spacecraft survived all the anomalies. Several of the science instruments suffered increased noise while within about 700,000 km of Jupiter. The quartz crystal used as the frequency reference for the radio suffered permanent frequency shifts with each Jupiter approach. A spin detector failed and the spacecraft gyro output was biased by the radiation environment. The SSI camera began producing totally white images when the spacecraft was hit by the exceptional 'Bastille Day' coronal mass ejection in 2000 and subsequently on close approaches to Jupiter. The most severe effect was a reset of the computers (a CDS despun bus reset) that occurred when the spacecraft was either close to Jupiter or in the region of space magnetically downstream of the Earth. Work-arounds were found for all of these problems. (Wikipedia article on Galileo)

Ok, you get the idea.  To me, the Galileo mission  represents an awe-inspiring combination of technological know-how, applied science, ad-hoc problem-solving, and creative ingenuity which provided a close up view of strange new worlds and greatly increased our knowledge of the universe.  In this age of news filled with stories of greed, incompetence, political and social strife, environmental degradation, and economic collapse, it is tempting to become misanthropic and conclude that humans are just no damned good.  But then we do something like this and through such a wondrous technological expression of the human spirit, raise the possibility that maybe there is a glimmer of  hope after all.

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