In the first and second parts of our blog series, we presented famous space units and structures that were the first in their fields. We now end our highly subjective enumeration with a few objects that have perhaps been heard less than the legendary space technology devices.
Ulysses: the first space structure to visit both poles of the Sun.
Country: European Union (ESA)
Our Solar System is full of wonderfully exciting, discoverable celestial bodies, but none has as much of an impact on our lives as the Sun itself. So why did not humanity explore more of it before? The European Space Agency's Ulysses space structure (Named after the Roman variation of Odysseus), was the answer for that question. The mission itself grew out of the abandoned International Solar Polar Mission. Originally, two probes, one made by NASA and one by the ESA, were meant to examine the two poles of the Sun, but the Americans cancelled the construction process, causing considerable tension between the two parties. Due to the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle, the launch was delayed for a long time, until finally in October 1990, the Ulysses was able to reach outer space. In 1992, it became the fifth space structure to reach Jupiter and only then did it return to the Sun, reaching it in March 1995. Finally, between September 2000 and December 2001, it observed firstly the south and secondly the north “Corner of the Sun,” providing valuable data on its magnetic structure. The contact with Ulysses was permanently lost in June 2009, the 19th year of its mission.
Huygens: the first spacecraft to land on Titan
Country: European Union (ESA)
The space unit, named after the 17th-century genius Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, was built as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. NASA wanted to launch a project to map Saturn and its moons as early as the 1980s, but Congress had voted down the plan. Finally, in cooperation with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, a unique plan was formed in 1997. NASA provided the Cassini transport unit, ESA used the Huygens landing unit, and the Italians added the high-power antenna and most of the radio system. The scientists did not design Huygens to land at first. At Christmas 2004, Huygens “woke up” from its many years of passivity: it broke away from Cassini and in January 2005 entered the atmosphere of the Titan, one of Saturn’s most exciting-looking moons. The eight-and-a-half-meter parachute opened and began to transmit data as early as a minute after the start of the descending. Huygens landed on a kind of “sand” made of grains of ice and continued transmitting valuable data back to Earth. Thanks to Huygen, humanity learnt a lot about the Titan’s past, and in one of its great seas, liquid methane was found.
New Horizons: the first space structure to fly past Pluto
Is Pluto a planet or not? The old controversy fades because NASA’s New Horizons space structure approached Pluto in March 2015 closer than the distance from Earth to Sun. By the end of April, the structure sent plenty of pictures home, revealing details hidden from terrestrial binoculars. The New Horizons measured the diameter of the asteroid, and in July 2015, it flew 7,800 kilometres above the surface of Pluto, discovering several other companions in addition to the already known Charon moon. For 15 months, it provided NASA with more than 6 gigabytes of data, and by 2017, Americans were able to present the asteroid and Charon in detail. However, the story isn’t over yet: New Horizons is heading to the Sagittarius constellation at a speed of 14 kilometres per second and is hopefully taking a significant part in observing the distant Kuiper planetary belt.
Hayabusa: the first space structure to collect rock samples on an asteroid
Japan made history with Hayabusa. The goal was to encounter an asteroid originally called 1998SF36, later called Itokawa, the father of the Japanese space program. During the Hayabusa mission, the specialists faced several unexpected problems: one of the four ion-powered engines was damaged shortly after the launch, and later the solar cells were damaged due to a massive solar flare. On November 19, 2005, the unit landed on the Itokawa, collected soil samples with a kind of “spray” solution, and successfully returned in June 2010. Hayabusa, which landed in Australia, provided humanity with about 1,500 grams of asteroid samples.
Juno: the first space structure to examine the interior of Jupiter
Year: from 2016
Launched in August 2011, NASA's space unit was designed to study the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. Named after the wife of the Roman deity Jupiter, the device approached the planet’s famous clouds for 3,500 kilometres in May 2017, and in July it flew over the famous Great Red Spot while gathering important data about the gas giant. An unusual event took place in the process: in collaboration with LEGO, Juno released three figures in outer space: one depicting Galileo Galilei, another depicting the Roman deity Jupiter, and a third depicting Jupiter's wife, Juno herself.
Fun fact: In 2016, Trent Reznor, founder of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails in America, greeted the Juno program in a nine-minute etude “Visions of Harmony”. The song became the background music of the official NASA mission. Watch it here!