Carlos Entrena, one of the bright young minds in aerospace engineering, early a valid question last week in the wake of the Juno mission’s successful placement in orbit around Jupiter: “So why is a spacecraft making a preplanned fire such a big deal again?” He was right, it seemed like a relatively simple maneuver.
Another young scientist, Christopher Stelter, offered one set of answers that put the Juno spacecraft’s 35-minute engine burn into perspective. One reason, he said, was that, “Most burns a spacecraft does aren’t critical. If there’s a failure, you can try again later. Not this time. And it’s a very long burn.”
This exchange caught my attention because over the past few years NASA has made the extremely difficult flying robotic probes throughout the solar system seem easy. The agency’s track record seems even more impressive compared to other space agencies. In reality, no other country or space agency can really be considered NASA’s peer, especially when it comes to Mars and beyond. (Granted, the Soviet Union has a better track record with Venus).
Look at Mars: In the 1960s, the Soviet Union sent eight probes to Mars. All failed and most were lost even before reaching Earth orbit. In contrast, three of NASA’s first four missions to Mars were successful, including Mariner 4, which returned the first close-up images of the Red Planet in 1965.
Then there are the Mars landers. Eight of NASA’s nine missions to the surface of Mars have been successful, with only the Mars Polar Lander failing to reach the surface safely. In contrast, four out of five Soviet landers failed to reach Mars safely, and the one that did, Mars 3 in 1971, only survived for about 15 seconds. No other nation or agency has landed on Mars. Since NASA’s last high-profile failure in solar system exploration, the Arctic lander in 1999, Japan, China, Russia and the United Kingdom have all lost several orbiters and landers sent to the Mars system. (In the meantime, NASA placed Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity on the surface of Mars).
The record is stronger for Jupiter and beyond. The Soviet Union and Russia have never flown beyond Mars. The European Space Agency has participated in two NASA missions that have gone beyond the asteroid belt. The first, Ulysses, made two distant flybys of Jupiter on a mission primarily focused on observing the sun. NASA managed the development of the second mission, Cassini, which has been spectacularly observing the Saturn system for the past decade. As part of that mission, the European Space Agency’s Titan lander was partially successful.
And that’s it for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, NASA has explored the outer solar system with Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, the Galileo and now Juno missions to the Jupiter system, and New Horizons to Pluto and beyond. It’s amazing to think about that each single probe NASA has sent to the outer solar system has been a success. In this, NASA has a perfect track record with missions that no other space agency has ever attempted.
This is a testament to NASA and its planetary science division, led by Jim Green since 2006, and a host of other visionaries before him. It’s thanks to the amazing work of engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and NASA centers around the country. And finally, it’s thanks to Washington DC, which has recognized the value of exploring our solar system and invested in these missions for a long time.
And about those routine burns, like Juno’s? In 2010, Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft would take a 12-minute burn to push itself into orbit around Venus. Instead, the engine stalled for less than three minutes, likely due to salt deposits blocking a valve between the helium pressure tank and the fuel tank. Five years later, after spiraling around the inner solar system, the spacecraft got close enough to Venus to try again. Using the vehicle’s less powerful thrusters, Akatsuki reached a much higher orbit around Venus than originally planned. Some science has been done since then.
Akatsuki once again showed that there is nothing routine about space missions. Therefore, when tracking the progress of missions like Juno, we shouldn’t take NASA’s track record of success for granted. We should celebrate it sooner.