US Space Shuttle programme: Columbia was the name given to the prestigious winged US space shuttle, which had blasted off from the Cape Canaveral station on 12 April 1981, being the first space vehicle which could be used again and was “reflyable”. On 1 February 2003, the Columbia space shuttle exploded just minutes before it was to land, killing all seven astronauts on board, including India-born Kalpna Chawla. The mission was led by US Air Force Colonel Rick Husband.
Challenger was the second space shuttle. It was launched on 4 April 1983. In its several flights the shuttle recorded several firsts in the history of space research. These were as follows:
- the first American woman to fly into space (Ms Sally Ride);
- the first seven-person crew one more than on any previous flight;
- the first time two women were on the same spacecraft. The crew members were Sally Ride and Kathy Sullivan;
- the first spacewalk by a U.S. woman, Kathy Sullivan;
- the first American woman to make a second space trip, Sally Ride;
- the first astronaut to make four shuttle flights, Commander Bob Crippen;
- the first demonstration of the satellite refuelling technique in space;
- the first person to walk and “fly” in space, Bruce McCandless;
- the first orbital repair job in space was done during one of the flights of Challenger, when the crippled satellite Solar Max was repaired on 10 April 1984.
Challenger exploded on 28 January 1986, 45 seconds after blast-off from Cape Canaveral.
USA launched its third space shuttle Discovery on 20 August 1984. One of the major missions of the shuttle was the ‘laser-test’ for controversial “starwars” anti-missile defence programme.
On 9 September 2006, space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit.
The space shuttle Endeavour roared into space on 8 August 2007, ending a 22-year wait for teacher-turned-space-flyer Barbara Morgan. She was part of the teacher-in-space programme of NASA.
On 21 July 2011, Space shuttle Atlantis touched down safely in its final landing at the Kennedy Space Centre, bringing the curtain down on the NASA’s 30-year space shuttle programme, considered one of the most eventful eras in the US history of manned spaceflight. The 30-year space shuttle programme began with the launch of Columbia on 12 April 1981.
A stroll in space for grandpas: The world’s first pair of spacewalking grandfathers, nicknamed the Silver Team, floated outside and finished bolting a 13-metre girder to the International Space Station on 14 April 2002. Shuttle Atlantis astronauts Jerry Ross and Lee Morin had to contend with some sticky bolts, but still managed to snap two three-pronged struts into place and complete the work begun by two of their colleagues earlier in the week.
First Woman to Walk in Space: Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to walk in space on 26 July 1984.
Sunita becomes second woman of Indian origin to enter space: On 10 December 2006, Sunita Williams became the second woman of Indian origin after Kalpana Chawla to reach the orbit, along with six other astronauts on board space shuttle Discovery.
Russian becomes oldest person in the world to spacewalk: Pavel Vinogradov, 59-year-old Russian cosmonaut, became the world’s oldest spacewalker on 19 April 2013, when he emerged from the hatch for a little maintenance work outside the International Space Station. Previously, the record was held by retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, who was 58 when he helped fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993.
International Space Station: A Russian proton booster rocket carried the first part of the international space station into orbit on 20 November 1998, heralding the start of a new era in international space colonisation.
On 8 December 1998, US space Shuttle Endeavour’s astronauts successfully connected the Zarya control module with the made-in-America Unity chamber, creating a seven-storey tower in the shuttle cargo bay.
On 23 May 2000, astronauts from space shuttle Atlantis opened the international space station for business.
The project is a collaborative effort involving 17 nations.
Japan’s first lunar probe launched: Japan launched its first lunar probe on 14 September 2007. The probe was nicknamed Kaguya after a fairytale princess. The mission consisted of a main orbiter and two baby satellites equipped with 14 observation instruments, designed to examine surface terrain of the moon.
China’s first man in space: China fired its first taikonaut (astronaut) into orbit without any visible hitches on 15 October 2003, becoming only the third nation capable of manned spaceflight. The rocket carrying Lt Col Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old fighter pilot turned astronaut, streaked into a clear blue sky from a Gobi Desert launch pad in China’s remote northwest. The Shenzhou-5 space capsule entered orbit 10 minutes later. Yang spent approximately 21 hours in space before returning safely to earth.
China launches first moon orbiter: On 24 October 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, Chang’e one, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon. The orbiter entered the lunar orbit on 4 November 2007 and spent more than a year scanning the lunar surface.
China launches its first moon rover: On 2 December 2013, China launched its first moon rover, named name Jade Rabbit, or ‘Yutu’. The lunar rover landed on the moon on 14 December 2013, the first soft landing on the moon in nearly four decades and a major step for the emerging superpower’s ambitious space programme.
First quantum communication satellite: China has developed the first quantum communication satellite in the world to improve the security of data transmission and thwart hackers. Quantum communication boasts ultra-high security as a quantum photon can neither be separated nor duplicated. It is, hence, impossible to wiretap, intercept or crack the information transmitted through it.
Deep Impact Comet smasher: A NASA spacecraft with a Hollywood name—Deep Impact—blasted off on 12 January 2005, on a mission to smash a hole in Temple 1 comet and give scientists a glimpse of the frozen primordial ingredients of the solar system. The collision, which occurred 83 million miles from Earth, marked the first time a spacecraft came in contact with a comet.
Galileo: On 8 December 1995, spacecraft Galileo reached Jupiter after six years and a 3.7 billion km journey. Galileo’s close encounter with the largest planet was the culmination of a nearly 20-year programme, aimed at learning about the gigantic Jovian system. The nuclear-powered Galileo spacecraft was purposely destroyed on 24 September 2003, by crashing it into Jupiter, ending its scientific career in a blaze of glory.
Magellan: A robot spacecraft to probe planet Venus was launched on 4 May 1989 by the US space shuttle Atlantis. The $ 550 million robot spacecraft was called Magellan. It was the first launch by USA after an eleven-year interruption in its inter-planetary flight programme. It was the first space probe to be launched from a space shuttle.
Hubble telescope: The US space shuttle Discovery blasted-off from Cape Canaveral on 24 April 1990, with the revolutionary Hubble space telescope. On April 26 the telescope was freed from the space shuttle and it drifted off on its search for new worlds. On 13 December 1993, US space-shuttle Endeavour’s astronauts completed the biggest repair job in space history—overhauling the Hubble space telescope. The US space shuttle Discovery’s repair mission in January 1999 successfully repaired the telescope once again. Six new gyroscopes, a new on-board computer and other parts were replaced.
Japanese probe lands on Asteroid: A Japanese space probe made history on 26 November 2005 when it landed on the surface of an asteroid and then collected rock samples that could give clues to the origin of the solar system. The probe, called Hayabusa—Japanese for “falcon”—succeeded in the delicate task which scientists have likened to landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon. The US and the former Soviet Union have brought back samples from the Moon in the past, but it was the first time that surface material from an asteroid had been collected.
New Horizons—NASA’s Pluto Mission: The first mission to distant planet Pluto was launched on 19 January 2006. On 15 July 2015, New Horizons spacecraft phoned back to Earth, confirming NASA mission success—a mission reached the icy dwarf planet for the first time in human history. New Horizons made it to around 12,500 kilometres from the dwarf planet, and settled a decades-long debate about the size of Pluto, discovering that the dwarf planet is 2,370 kilometres in diameter, larger than many prior estimates. The size was determined from images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the spacecraft. The engineers have now set-course for New Horizons to fly by another object at the edge of the Solar System—on 1 January 2019.
Ulysses: On 6 October 1990, a new voyage into the unknown of the deep space began, when Ulysses scientific spacecraft was launched aloft the US space shuttle, Discovery. It was the first time that a spacecraft travelled the polar regions of the sun, away from the usual ecliptic plane. Ulysses flew near the top of the sun on 31 July 1995.
Mars Pathfinder: NASA launched a spacecraft to Mars on 4 December 1996, carrying the first-ever interplanetary rover, a six-wheeled cart roamed the frigid Martian surface. Pathfinder landed on Mars on 4 July 1997, the first time after 21 years when a spacecraft landed on Mars.
A second probe, Mars Global Surveyor entered the Mars orbit on 2 September 1997. Scientists studying high-resolution images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft found no evidence of shorelines that would have surrounded oceans. The new findings have overturned previous hypothesis pointing to certain landscape feature that apparently resembled ancient shorelines.
Mars Odyssey: The spacecraft was launched on 7 April 2001. The Odyssey was part of the Mars exploration program, a long-term robotic exploration of the red planet by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The mission arrived at Mars on 28 October 2001. The main aim of the mission was to search for signs of water on the red planet.
Beagle-2 Mars Lander of Europe: Europe’s Mars Express Orbiter and its lander Beagle-2 were successfully launched from Kazakhstan on 2 June 2003, by a Russian-made Soyuz-Fregat rocket. Europe’s quest to seek signs of life on Mars was, however, dealt a jarring blow on 25 December 2003, after Beagle-2 failed to call Earth after its scheduled landing on the Red Planet.
NASA spacecraft to Mars: The first of two NASA rovers, Spirit, embarked on a 500-million km voyage to Mars on 11 June 2003, to prospect for geological evidence that the planet was once warm and wet enough to support life. Its identical twin, Opportunity, followed it into space later.
Spirit, landed on Mars on 4 January 2004, and radioed home that it was apparently safe and ready to search for signs of water in the planet’s early history. The first images Spirit sent from Mars showed a landscape scattered with small rocks that brought cheers from scientists when they caught sight of the black and white photos.
Opportunity successfully rolled off its Lander and onto the rusty soil of Mars on 30 January 2004. The risky roll off apparently went without a hitch, as indicated by a single black-and-white image transmitted via satellite to Earth. Opportunity has found evidence that part of Mars was once soaked with enough water to sustain life. The most compelling evidence is large quantities of jarosite, a mineral that contains iron, sulphur and trapped water. “This is a mineral that you’ve got to have water around to make it”, a NASA official said.
NASA’s Mars reconnaissance orbiter: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) blasted off into space on 12 August 2005 for a 25-month mission to survey the Red Planet. The orbiter was sent to step up the search for signs of water on Mars and to help pick sites for possible landings on the planet in the future.
Phoenix lands in Mars’ polar region: On 26 May 2008, a small US spacecraft, Phoenix, landed in the north polar region of Mars to begin a three-month search for water and building blocks of life and successfully sent images of the frozen land within two hours. The Phoenix Mars lander confirmed their long-held belief that ice is hiding under the surface in the red planet’s northern region.
NASA launches Curiosity rover to Mars: On 26 November 2011, an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket launched a $2.5 billion nuclear-powered NASA rover toward Mars, to look for life habitats there. The rover, nicknamed Curiosity, had 17 cameras and 10 science instruments, including chemistry labs, to identify elements in soil and rock samples to be dug up by the probe’s drill-tipped robotic arm. The car-sized rover touched down on 6 August 2012, to begin detailed analysis of a 154-km wide impact basin near the Martian equator called Gale Crater. It was the first astrobiology mission to Mars since the 1970s-era Viking probes.
NEAR-Shoemaker lands on Eros: Space probe NEAR-Shoemaker (short for Near Earth Astreroid Rendezvous) set down on asteroid Eros on 12 February 2001, the first time in history that any craft had landed on this kind of space rock. NEAR was never intended to land. It orbited the 33.6 km asteroid for a year, taking some 1,60,000 pictures and beaming them back to earth. It was only at the end of its expected life that the scientists decided a landing attempt that could provide some “bonus science”.
The kidney-shaped Eros, with dimensions of 13 ´ 13 ´ 33 km, became the fifth celestial body to be touched by a human spacecraft, following Moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
World’s smallest labs: Deep Space 2 was the world’s smallest lab. It was sent to Mars with the Mars Polar lander. It was powered by the equal of eight flashlight batteries. It was the size of a grapefruit and driven by a computer half the size of a business card, and not much thicker. With the Polar Lander mission failing, the Deep Space 2 laboratory was also doomed.
Venus Express: Venus Express was an unmanned European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft that orbited the planet, scanning it with powerful tools with the goal of understanding its strange, terrifying climate system.
NASA launches interstellar explorer mission: On 21 October 2008, the US space agency NASA launched the Interstellar Boundary Explorer Mission (IBEX) to image and map dynamic interactions taking place in the outer solar system.
Chandra X-ray observatory: On 23 July 1999, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, was launched by the US space shuttle Colombia, which was commanded by the first woman commander, astronaut Eileen Collins. The Chandra X-ray Observatory provides unique and crucial information on the nature of objects, ranging from comets in our solar system to black holes and quasars at the edge of the observable universe.
The observatory is named in honour of the late Indian-American Nobel laureate Subramanian Chandrasekhar. Chandra is the shortened version of Chandrasekhar’s name, which he preferred among friends and colleagues.
3-D Earth Mapping: The Endeavour space shuttle, in February 2000, carried innovating imaging radar that, for the first time, mapped the earth in three dimensions. Known as the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), this radar system represented a breakthrough in the science of remote-sensing and produced topographic maps of earth 30 times as precise as the best in use till date.
Pluto no longer a planet: On 24 August 2006, Pluto was stripped of its status as a planet when scientists from around the world redefined it as a “dwarf planet”, leaving just eight classical planets in the solar system. Discovered in 1930, Pluto was considered the ninth planet in the solar system.
Albert Einstein, Europe’s largest spaceship: European Space Agency’s (ESA) fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle, Albert Einstein—the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Europe, completed a flawless rendezvous with the International Space Station on 15 June 2013. The 20-tonne ferry flew autonomously and docked with the 420-tonne complex with a precision of a few cm as both circled Earth at 28 000 km/h. Like its predecessors, ATV-4 is much more than a simple supply vessel: it is a space tug, a tanker, a freighter and a temporary habitation module.
IKAROS—First solar powered spacecraft: Japanese scientists have developed a kite-shaped ‘space yacht’ that uses only solar power for propulsion. The spacecraft—IKAROS—would be launched into the space for a six-month mission to Venus. It is the first spacecraft to use such technology. Its name is an acronym for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun. It also alludes to the Greek mythic hero Icarus who flew too close to the Sun and fell into the sea. In space, the spacecraft’s short cylindrical pod will be separated from the rocket spinning up to 20 times a minute. This will help it unfold its flexible 46-feet sail, which is thinner than a human hair.
Thirty Meter Telescope Project: On 25 June 2010, India joined as an observer in the ambitious astronomical observatory, Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT), in Hawaii, which will help in unravelling mysteries of black hole, origin of galaxies and formation of planets among others. TMT, which will be fully operational in 2018, will be world’s most advanced astronomical observatory.
Messenger spacecraft: On 17 March 2011, NASA’s Messenger (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft successfully entered into orbit around the planet Mercury—the first probe to do so. It had been launched on 3 August 2004. Messenger, reached the end of its historic 11-year mission on 30 April 2015, when it crashed into Mercury.
Juno—NASA’s mission to Jupiter: Juno was NASA’s New Frontiers mission to the planet Jupiter. It was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on 5 August 2011, and has broken the record to become humanity’s most distant solar-powered emissary, when the spacecraft reached about 793 million kilometres from the Sun. The previous record-holder was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, whose orbit peaked out at the 792-million-kilometre mark in October 2012, during its approach to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Juno spacecraft finally reached Jupiter on 4 July 2016. However, in October, Juno’s main engine did not behave as expected, which prevented the space agency from putting the probe into a shorter orbit around Jupiter as was originally planned.
World’s largest telescope to be built by a five-nation consortium: A five-nation consortium including India would be constructing the world’s largest optical telescope, which would be the world’s most advanced ground based observatory. This telescope will be developed in Hawaii, at the summit of the Mauna Kea Volcano. Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) will be jointly built and operated by India, Japan, Canada, China and the USA.
Kirobo—First Talking Robot in Space: On 4 July 2013, Japan launched the world’s first talking robot into space to serve as companion to astronaut Kochi Wakata who began his mission in November 2013. It was part of a study to see how machines can lend emotional support to people isolated over long periods. Kirobo has a twin robot on Earth called Mirata, which monitored any problems its electronic counterpart experienced in space.
Strand-1—First “Phonesat” in space: India has become the world’s first country to launch a smartphone into space. The British-built Strand-1 spacecraft, developed by scientists in Surrey, was sent into orbit from Sriharikota, using PSLV launcher. STRaND-1 was a training and demonstration mission, designed to test commercial off-the-shelf technologies in space.
Copernicus Earth observation project: On 3 April 2014, Europe launched the first of six Sentinel satellites forming part of the multi-billion-euro Copernicus Earth observation project that could offer valuable images in the event of a natural disaster or even a plane crash. It is one of the EU’s two flagship space programmes along with satellite-navigation initiative Galileo, which is meant to rival the dominant US Global Positioning System, or GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s new Beidou system.
First spacecraft to land on comet: On 12 November 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a probe on a comet, a first in space exploration and the climax of a decade-long mission to get samples from what are the remnants of the birth of Earth’s solar system. The box-shaped 100-kg lander, named Philae, touched down on schedule after a seven-hour descent from spacecraft Rosetta around half a billion kilometres from Earth. Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet rather than just flying past to take pictures. It spent 786 days orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On 30 September 2016, it softly crash-landed.
OSIRIS-REx spacecraft: In September 2016, NASA launched the spacecraft on a round trip mission to the asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-REx is tasked with grabbing a sample of rocks off the asteroid and bringing them back to Earth. OSIRIS-REx will be able to grab a sample from Bennu in 2020, and the return to Earth is slated for 2023.
Cassini–Huygens mission: commonly called Cassini, was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to send a probe to study the planet Saturn and its system, including its rings and natural satellites. The spacecraft comprised NASA’s Cassini probe, and ESA’s Huygens lander which landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. At the end of its mission, the Cassini spacecraft executed the “Grand Finale” of its mission: after a number of risky passes through the gaps between Saturn and its inner rings, the spacecraft plunged into the depths of Saturn in September 2017.