Game of Probes: The First Probe Sent to Another Civilization Won’t Be the First to Arrive

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

If we ever detect an Extraterrestrial Civilization (ETC) and start communicating with them, the messages could take years, decades, or even centuries to travel back and forth. We face a challenging 49-minute long delay just communicating with the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, and that’s well within our Solar System. Communicating with an ETC that’s hundreds of light-years away or even further is a daunting task.

It’s even worse if we’re sending probes.

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Edward Stone Has Been the Voyagers’ Project Scientist for 50 Years. He Just Retired

Artist's concept of Voyager 1 in interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Edward Stone is retiring after 50 years as Project Scientist for the Voyager mission. The twin spacecraft revolutionized our understanding of our Solar System, and Stone was along for the ride every step of the way. Both spacecraft are still going, travelling deeper into interplanetary space, and still sending data home.

But after a long and rewarding career full of achievements and recognition, Stone is moving on.

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NASA has Figured Out How to Extend the Lives of the Voyagers Even Longer

This artist's concept depicts one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft, including the location of the cosmic ray subsystem (CRS) instrument. Both Voyagers launched with operating CRS instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyagers 1 and 2 have the distinction of being in space for 42 years and still operating. And even though they’re 18 billion km (11 billion miles) from the Sun, they’re still valuable scientifically. But they’re running out of energy, and if NASA wants them to continue on much longer, they have some decisions to make.

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Voyager and Pioneer’s Grand Tour of the Milky Way

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

During the early 1990s, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 probes became the first robotic missions to venture beyond Neptune. In 2012 and 2018, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions went even farther by crossing the heliopause and entering interstellar space. Eventually, these probes may reach another star system, where their special cargo (the Pioneer Plaques and the Golden Records) could find their way into the hands of another species.

Which raises an important question: where might these spacecraft eventually wander? To address this, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that examined which star systems the Voyager and Pioneer probes will likely encounter as they drift through the Milky Way over the next few million years…

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Saturn is Losing its Rings, Fast. They Could be Gone Within 100 Million Years

This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

It has been almost forty years since the Voyager 1 and 2 missions visited the Saturn system. As the probes flew by the gas giant, they were able to capture some stunning, high-resolution images of the planet’s atmosphere, its many moons, and its iconic ring system. In addition, the probes also revealed that Saturn was slowly losing its rings, at a rate that would see them gone in about 100 million years.

More recently, the Cassini orbiter visited the Saturn system and spent over 12 years studying the planet, its moons and its ring system. And according to new research based on Cassini’s data, it appears that Saturn is losing its rings at the maximum rate predicted by the Voyager missions. According to the study, Saturn’s rings are being gobbled up by the gas giant at a rate that means they could be gone in less 100 million years.

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Finally! Voyager 2 is Now in Interstellar Space

NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1 exited the heliosphere in August 2012. Voyager 2 exited at a different location in November 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On August 25th, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft accomplished something no human-made object ever had before. After exploring the Uranus, Neptune, and the outer reaches of the Solar System, the spacecraft entered interstellar space. In so doing, it effectively became the most distant object from Earth and traveled further than anyone, or anything, in history.

Well, buckle up, because according to NASA mission scientists, the Voyager 2 spacecraft recently crossed the outer edge of the heliopause – the boundary between our Solar System and the interstellar medium – and has joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space.  But unlike its sibling, the Voyager 2 spacecraft carries a working instrument that will provide the first-ever observations of the boundary that exists between the Solar System and interstellar space.

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NASA Voyager Probes Still Going Strong After 40 Years

Earth's Greatest Hits: the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.

This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.

In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 2 Mission
The launch of the Voyager 2 probe, which took place on August 20th, 1977. Credit: NASA

Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.

These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:

“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”

But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.

Each of the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 carry a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record with images and sounds from Earth. Credit: NASA

As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.

From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.

Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.

Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.

Illustration showing how NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is looking along the paths of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they journey through the solar system and into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levy (STScI)

The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:

“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”

Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.

Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a speed of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph) and covering a single AU every 126 days.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has started to transverse what JPL has dubbed as a “cosmic purgatory” between our solar system – and interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL

At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.

And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!

Further Reading: NASA

What Will the Voyager Spacecraft Encounter Next? Hubble Helps Provide a Roadmap

An artist's concept of Voyager 1's view of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is one of our first interstellar probes, though it's an inadvertent one. It has no particular destination. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

The twin Voyager spacecraft are now making their way through the interstellar medium. Even though they are going where none have gone before, the path ahead it is not completely unknown.

Astronomers are using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the ‘road’ ahead for these pioneering spacecraft, to ascertain what various materials may lay along the Voyagers’ paths through space.

Combining Hubble data with the information the Voyagers are able to gather and send back to Earth, astronomers said a preliminary analysis reveals “a rich, complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements.”

“This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble,” said Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University, who led the study. “The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plow through space at roughly 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through.”

The combined data is also providing new insights into how our Sun travels through interstellar space, and astronomers hope that these combined observations will help them characterize the physical properties of the local interstellar medium.

“Ideally, synthesizing these insights with in situ measurements from Voyager would provide an unprecedented overview of the local interstellar environment,” said Hubble team member Julia Zachary of Wesleyan University.

The initial look at the clouds’ composition shows very small variations in the abundances of the chemical elements contained in the structures.

“These variations could mean the clouds formed in different ways, or from different areas, and then came together,” Redfield said.

In this illustration, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is looking along the paths of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they journey through the solar system and into interstellar space. Hubble is gazing at two sight lines (the twin cone-shaped features) along each spacecraft’s path. The telescope’s goal is to help astronomers map interstellar structure along each spacecraft’s star-bound route. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI).

Astronomers are also seeing that the region that we and our solar system are passing through right now contains “clumpier” material, which may affect the heliosphere, the large bubble that is produced by our Sun’s powerful solar wind. At its boundary, called the heliopause, the solar wind pushes outward against the interstellar medium. Hubble and Voyager 1 made measurements of the interstellar environment beyond this boundary, where the wind comes from stars other than our sun.

“I’m really intrigued by the interaction between stars and the interstellar environment,” Redfield said. “These kinds of interactions are happening around most stars, and it is a dynamic process.”

Both Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977 and both explored Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 1 is now 13 billion miles (20 billion km) from Earth, and entered interstellar space in 2012, the region between the stars that is filled with gas, dust, and material recycled from dying stars. It is the farthest a human-made spacecraft has even traveled. Next big ‘landmark’ for Voyager 2 is in about 40,000 years when it will come within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis.

Voyager 2, is 10.5 billion miles (16.9 billion km) from Earth, and will pass 1.7 light-years from the star Ross 248 in about 40,000 years.

Of course, neither spacecraft will be operational by then.

But scientists hope that for at least the next 10 years, the Voyagers will be making measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays along their trajectories. The complimentary Hubble observations will help to map interstellar structure along the routes. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured how interstellar material absorbed some of the starlight, leaving telltale spectral fingerprints.

When the Voyagers run out of power and are no longer able to communicate with Earth, astronomers still hope to use observations from Hubble and subsequent space telescopes to characterize the environment where our robotic emissaries to the cosmos will travel.

Source: HubbleSite

Prof. Lubin Wants to Send Our Digital Selves to the Stars

Credit: Voices of Humanity/kickstarter.com

Setting foot on a distant planet… we’ve all dreamed about it at one time or another. And it has been a staple of science fiction for almost a century. Engage the warp dive, spool up the FLT, open a wormhole, or jump into the cryochamber. Next stop, Alpha Centauri (or some other star)! But when it comes to turning science fiction into science fact, there are certain unfortunate realities we have to contend with. For starters, none of the technology for faster-than-light travel exists!

Second, sending crewed mission to even the nearest planets is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor. But thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of miniaturization, electronics and direct-energy, it might be possible to send tiny spacecraft to distant stars in a single lifetime, which could carry something of humanity along with them. Such is the hope of Professor Philip Lubin and Travis Bradshears, the founders of “Voices of Humanity“.

For people familiar with directed-energy concepts, the name Philip Lubin should definitely ring a bell. A professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), he is also the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project, and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study. These projects seek to use laser arrays and large sails to achieve relativistic flight for the sake of making interstellar missions a reality.

Looking beyond propulsion and into the realm of public participation in space exploration, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears (an engineering and physics student from the University of California, Berkeley) came together to launch Voices of Humanity (VoH) in 2015. Inspired by their work with NASA, this Kickstarter campaign aims to create the world’s first “Space Time Capsule”.

Intrinsic to this is the creation of a Humanity Chip, a custom semiconductor memory device that can be attached to the small, wafer-scale spacecraft that are part of DEEP-IN and other directed-energy concepts. This chip will contain volumes of data, including tweets, media files, and even the digital DNA records of all those who want to take part in the mission. As Professor Lubin told Universe Today in a phone interview:

“We wanted to put on board some part of humanity. We couldn’t shrink ray people down, so Travis and I brainstormed and thought that the next best thing would be to allow people to become digital astronauts. We wanted to pave the way for interstellar missions where we could send the essence of humanity to the stars – “Emissaries of the Earth”, if you will. We wanted to pave the way for that.”

This digital archive would be similar to the Golden Record that was placed on the Voyager probes, but would be much more sophisticated. Taking advantage of all the advances made in computing, electronics and data storage in recent decades, it would contain many millions of times the data, but comprise a tiny fraction of the volume.

the DEEP-laser sail concept, via http://www.deepspace.ucsb.edu/projects/directed-energy-interstellar-precursors, Copyright © 2016 UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group.
The DEEP-laser sail concept, showing a laser-driven sail. Credit and Copyright: © 2016 UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group.

In fact, as Lupin explained, the state of technology today allows us to create a digital archive that would be about the same size a fingernail, and which would require no more than a single gram of mass to be allocated on a silicon wafer-ship. And while such a device is not the same as sending astronauts on interstellar voyages to explore other planets, it does allow humanity to send something of itself.

“We now have the technology to put a message from everyone on Earth onto a small piece of a tiny spacecraft,” said Lupin. “We want to begin today, and not just for the future, by putting information onto anything that is launched from Earth. We are the point technologically, at this moment, that we could put a small portion of humanity on this spacecraft.”

In essence, human beings would be able to create the interstellar equivalent of a “Baby on Board” sticker, except for humanity instead. This sticker would be no larger than a postage stamp, and could be mounted on every craft to leave Earth in the near future. In essence, all missions departing from Earth could have “Humanity on Board”.

The plan is to launch their first chip – Humanity Chip 1.0 – into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 2017. This will be followed by the creation of Humanity Chip 2.0, which take advantage of the developments that will have occurred by next year. Eventually, they hope that Humanity Chips will be a part of missions that increase in distance from Earth, eventually culminating in a mission to interstellar space.

Artist's rendition of The Humanity chip. Credit: Voices of Humanity/kickstarter.com
Artist’s rendition of The Humanity chip placed on a silicon wafer spacecraft. Credit: Voices of Humanity/kickstarter.com

While there are no deep-space missions ready to go just yet, several concepts are on the table for interplanetary missions that will rely on wafer-scale spacecraft (like NASA’s DEEP-IN concept). If their Kickstarter campaign succeeds in raising the $30,000 necessary to create a Humanity Chip, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears also hope to create a “Black Hole Chip”, where participants will be able to record their “less than happy” thoughts as part of the data, which will then be sent off into space forever.

They also have a stretch goal in mind, known as the “Beam Me Up” objective. In the event that their campaign is able to raise $100,000, they will use the funds to create a ground-based laser array that will beam a package of encoded data towards a target destination in space.

As of the penning of this article, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears have raised a total of $5,656 towards their goal of $30,000. The campaign kicked off earlier this month and will remain open for another 22 days. So if you’re interested in contributing to Humanity Chip 1.0, or becoming an “Emissary of the Earth”, there’s still plenty of time.

In addition to his work with NASA, Prof. Lubin is also responsible for the UCSB’s Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and ExploRation (DE-STAR)  project, a proposed system that would use directed energy (i.e. big lasers!) to deflect asteroids, comets, and other near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could pose a risk to planet Earth.

Credit: Voices of Humanity/kickstarter.com
The Black Hole Chip is one of the stretch goals, which will send “less than happy” thoughts into space. Credit: Voices of Humanity/kickstarter.com

And, in a recent article titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence“- which appeared in the March 2016 issue of  REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lupin indicated that advances in directed-energy applications might also help in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Essentially, by looking for for sources of directed energy systems, he claims, we might be able to find our way to other civilizations.

It is an exciting age, where advances in telecommunications and electronics are allowing us to overcome the vast distances involved in space travel. In the future, astronauts may rely on robotic explorers and fast-as-light communications to explore distant worlds (a process known as telexploration). And with a digital archive on board, we will be able to send personal greetings to any life that may already exist there.

For those who would say “sharing personal information with extra-terrestrials is a bad idea”, I would remind them that they (probably) don’t have access to Twitter or our financial records. All the same, it might be wise not to include your Social Security (or Social Insurance) number in the recordings, or any other personal data you wouldn’t share with strangers!

And who knows? Someday, we may start colonizing other planets by sending our DNA there direct. The truth is always stranger than fiction, after all!

And be sure to check out this video produced by Voices for Humanity:

Further Reading: Voices of Humanity

How Long Does it Take to get to the Asteroid Belt?

It's long been thought that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. New studies say that the dinosaurs may have been facing extinction before the asteroid strike, and that mammals were already on the rise. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Consisting of millions of objects that range in size from hundreds of kilometers in diameter (like Ceres and Vesta) to one kilometer or more, the Asteroid Belt has long been a source of fascination for astronomers. Initially, they wondered why the many objects that make it up did not come together to form a planet. But more recently, human beings have been eyeing the Asteroid Belt for other purposes.

Whereas most of our efforts are focused on research – in the hopes of shedding additional light on the history of the Solar System – others are looking to tap for its considerable wealth. With enough resources to last us indefinitely, there are many who want to begin mining it as soon as possible. Because of this, knowing exactly how long it would take for spaceships to get there and back is becoming a priority.

Distance from Earth:

The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the edge of the Belt that is closest to it can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi).

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

However, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun, relative to Earth. From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Blt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges between being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.

But of course, for reasons of fuel economy and time, asteroid miners and exploration missions are not about to take the long way! As such, we can safely assume that the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt when they are at their closest is the only measurement worth considering.

Past Missions:

The Asteroid Belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it on their way to the outer Solar System. In more recent years, missions to study larger Asteroid Belt objects have also used this to their advantage, navigating between the smaller objects to rendezvous with bodies like Ceres and Vesta. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972 (a journey of 135 days). As part of its mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flyby of Jupiter (in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft have passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.

For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back gravity data on the dwarf planet’s gravity) and is expected to remain there until 2017.

Fastest Mission to Date:

The fastest mission humanity has ever mounted was the New Horizons mission, which was launched from Earth on Jan. 19th, 2006. The mission began with a speedy launch aboard an Atlas V rocket, which accelerated it to a a speed of about 16.26 km per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph). At this speed, the probe reached the Asteroid Belt by the following summer, and made a close approach to the tiny asteroid 132524 APL by June 13th, 2006 (145 days after launching).

However, even this pales in comparison to Voyager 1, which was launched on Sept. 5th, 1977 and reached the Asteroid Belt on Dec. 10th, 1977 – a total of 96 days. And then there was the Voyager 2 probe, which launched 15 days after Voyager 1 (on Sept. 20th), but still managed to arrive on the same date – which works out to a total travel time of 81 days.

For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don't work too well. Credit: NASA
For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don’t work too well. Credit: NASA

Not bad as travel times go. At these speed, a spacecraft could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt, spend several weeks conducting research (or extracting ore), and then make it home in just over six months time. However, one has to take into account that in all these cases, the mission teams did not decelerate the probes to make a rendezvous with any asteroids.

Ergo, a mission to the Asteroid Belt would take longer as the craft would have to slow down to achieve orbital velocity. And they would also need some powerful engines of their own in order to make the trip home. This would drastically alter the size and weight of the spacecraft, which would inevitably mean it would be bigger, slower and a heck of a lot more expensive than anything we’ve sent so far.

Another possibility would be to use ionic propulsion (which is much more fuel efficient) and pick up a gravity assist by conducting a flyby of Mars – which is precisely what the Dawn mission did. However, even with a boost from Mars’ gravity, the Dawn mission still took over three years to reach the asteroid Vesta – launching on Sept. 27th, 2007, and arriving on July 16th, 2011, (a total of 3 years, 9 months, and 19 days). Not exactly good turnaround!

Proposed Future Methods:

A number of possibilities exist that could drastically reduce both travel time and fuel consumption to the Asteroid Belt, many of which are currently being considered for a number of different mission proposals. One possibility is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades.

The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA
The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine.

In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. According to NASA estimates, the most sophisticated NTP concept would have a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kN·s/kg).

Using this engine, NASA scientists estimate that it would take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at “opposition” – i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth. Adjusted for a distance of 1.2 AUs, that means that a ship equipped with a NTP/NEC propulsion system could make the trip in about 293 days (about nine months and three weeks). A little slow, but not bad considering the technology exists.

Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Artist's concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit:
Artist’s concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Mars in just ten days. Adjusted for a trip to the Asteroid Belt, so a spacecraft equipped with an EM drive would take an estimated 32.5 days to reach the Asteroid Belt.

Impressive, yes? But of course, that is based on a concept that has yet to be proven. So let’s turn to yet another radical proposal, which is to use ships equipped with an antimatter engine. Created in particle accelerators, antimatter is the most dense fuel you could possibly use. When atoms of matter meet atoms of antimatter, they annihilate each other, releasing an incredible amount of energy in the process.

According to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which is researching the technology, it would take just 10 milligrams of antimatter to propel a human mission to Mars in 45 days. Based on this estimate, a craft equipped with an antimatter engine and roughly twice as much fuel could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt in roughly 147 days. But of course, the sheer cost of creating antimatter – combined with the fact that an engine based on these principles is still theoretical at this point – makes it a distant prospect.

Basically, getting to the Asteroid Belt takes quite a bit of time, at least when it comes to the concepts we currently have available. Using theoretical propulsion concepts, we are able to cut down on the travel time, but it will take some time (and lots of money) before those concepts are a reality. However, compared to many other proposed missions – such as to Europa and Enceladus – the travel time is shorter, and the dividends quite clear.

As already stated, there are enough resources – in the form of minerals and volatiles – in the Asteroid Belt to last us indefinitely. And, should we someday find a way to cost-effective way to send spacecraft there rapidly, we could tap that wealth and begin to usher in an age of post-scarcity! But as with so many other proposals and mission concepts, it looks like we’ll have to wait for the time being.

We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.

Also, be sure to learn which is the Largest Asteroid in the Solar System, and about the asteroid named after Leonard Nimoy. And here’s 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

We also have many interesting articles about the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Vesta and Ceres, and asteroid mining.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

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