Few things excite the human imagination like space travel. Missions to walk on the moon, land probes on speeding comets, or drive robots across Mars are undeniably thrilling, and remind us of just how far we’ve come from our humble primate roots. While the most electrifying missions are splashed across the headlines every few years, it’s easy to forget that space agencies around the world are constantly working on important, if less camera-ready, missions. Let’s count down 10 amazing space missions you’ve probably never heard of.
10. Skylab Space Station
Long before there was the International Space Station, there was Skylab. This early space station was produced and operated by NASA, and orbited Earth from 1973 to 1979. Skylab served as a base of operations for three manned missions, which produced several important scientific discoveries and set a new record for the longest continuous time a human had spent in space—at more than 84 days.
9. Venera Missions
While Mars is mankind’s current planetary fixation, Venus was an equally strong draw for scientists throughout much of the 20th century. Venera 9 and Venera 10 were twin unmanned Soviet missions to the yellow planet, launched days apart in 1975. The numerous measurements made by the Venera programme revealed the truly hellish conditions on Venus, and produced the first ever landscape photographs of another planet’s surface.
8. Chang’e 3 Mission to the Moon
Named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, Chang’e 3 was the third in a series of lunar missions by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). Launched in 2013, the unmanned spacecraft successfully landed on the lunar surface, establishing a base for its on-board astronomical observatory to make long-term observations of the cosmos.
Voyager 1 and 2 were highly successful twin missions that launched in 1977. After accomplishing their respective goals to explore the outer planets of the solar system, the Voyager probes kept on going, and are now boldly heading where no man, robot or Earthly object has ever gone before. Voyager 1 left the solar system in August 2012, moving into interstellar space, and Voyager 2 is slated to follow by 2018. Both probes are still communicating with Earth and are expected to remain in contact until 2020.
6. Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is the first interplanetary mission by the Indian Space Agency. Launched in 2013, MOM has been orbiting the red planet since 2014. The space probe uses several remote-sensing tools to study the Martian surface and cemented India’s entry into the interplanetary exploration game.
5. Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM)
The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission was the little-known product of a partnership between NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The TRMM satellite was launched in 1997, and far exceeded its original three-year mission by recording 17 years of data. As its name suggests, the observations made by TRMM revolutionised our understanding of Earth’s weather and climate.
4. Spitzer Telescope
When it comes to space telescopes, the Hubble has long been the proverbial belle of the ball. However, the Spitzer space telescope, the last of NASA’s four ‘Great Observatories’, has made some equally astounding discoveries. Launched in 2003, Spitzer observed the infrared spectrum, allowing scientists to capture spectacular images of the universe. After it ran out of coolant in 2009, Spitzer was re-purposed as a ‘planet hunter’, searching the universe for exoplanets that might serve as a second home for humanity.
The Akatsuki mission involved the sort of ambitious goals and high drama that typically make global headlines, but it received limited press outside of Japan. Built and operated by JAXA, Akatsuki left Earth in 2010 to study the atmosphere and volcanic activity of Venus. Unfortunately, a communication error foiled its entry into Venus’ orbit, causing the spacecraft to miss the yellow planet entirely. After circling the sun for five years, a series of small course corrections brought Akatsuki back to Venus in December 2015. The craft is currently orbiting the planet and carrying out a modified version of its original mission.
2. Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)
SOHO is a joint venture between the European Space Agency and NASA, which launched in 1995 on a mission to study the outer layers of the sun, solar wind, and the sun’s internal structure. SOHO orbits the sun at the same pace as Earth, allowing it to maintain a relatively fixed position between our planet and our star. Though not part of its original mission, one of SOHO’s greatest uses is its ability to find comets. The spacecraft has identified more than 3,000 comets during its lifetime—many of which were spotted by amateur astronomers sifting through public data sets.
1. Juno Mission to Jupiter
As its name suggests, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is on a mission to rendezvous with Jupiter. Launched in 2011, Juno is scheduled to arrive at the solar system’s largest planet in July 2016. Once it enters Jupiter’s orbit, Juno will map the planet’s magnetic fields, search for evidence of a solid core, and investigate the origins of the gas giant. When it completes its mission, Juno will self-destruct by plunging into Jupiter’s interior. Ah, marital bliss.
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