Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
Space travel isn’t as exciting as movies and books would have you believe. Or, more accurately, it is exciting, but in different ways.
For example, pretty much every piece of science-fiction that’s about or features space travel skips right to a time period where humanity has the technology to get between planetary bodies with relative ease. Which is fun and convenient for storytelling purposes, but it misses out on the large swath of time and effort humanity has gone through and will go through to make such manned trips possible. It may not be as glamorous as people aboard snazzy ships darting between strange and exciting planets, but the use of probes and satellites to chart the reaches of space before we head there ourselves is still a vital step.
Space travel is expensive, dangerous, and it takes a long time, so we like to know exactly where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and what will be waiting for us before we blast off. To get most of that information, we’ve sent dozens of probes to every planet in the solar system, a lot of moons, and many asteroids to do the exploring and discovering for us. Though often overlooked, these large, flying computers are necessary if we’re ever to eventually follow them to their destinations.
Click through the gallery to see the first close-up pictures taken of each planet in our solar system and the story of the probe that captured it.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Mars & Mariner 4
One hour after Mariner 3 launched out of the Earth's atmosphere and towards Mars, NASA discovered that the probe's solar panels weren't receiving sunlight. The probe's slower than planned speed indicated that its nose cone had failed to disengage from the craft. NASA sent a manual command to jettison the cone but nothing happened. Eight hours after launch, the probe's battery died and the mission ended. Just three weeks later on November 28, 1964, Mariner 4 launched on the same trajectory, equipped with a device to detect magnetic? fields, a Geiger counter, a telescope for cosmic rays, a cosmic dust collector, a TV camera, and a redesigned nose cone. Mariner 4 reached Mars on July 14 and began performing its tests. On July 15, it switched to its camera and took 22 pictures over two hours from 6,000 miles away, covering 1 percent of the planet's surface. The probe transmitted its data and photos back to Earth, a process that took nearly three weeks. In October, contact with the probe was lost because its antenna was slightly askew and the sheer distance between Earth and it required a near-perfect connection. Nearly two years later, signal with Mariner 4 was reacquired, but the probe was soon hit by a micrometeoroid shower, changing its orientation and thus its signal strength. Communication with the probe was ended shortly thereafter. Unless it collided with something since then, an astronomically unlikely event, then Mariner 4 is still out there somewhere orbiting the Sun.
Image via NASA
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Venus & Mariner 10
Mariner 10 launched on November 3, 1973. Its journey was fraught with technical issues, including its tracking system locking onto a fleck of paint instead of the star it was aimed at, a shorted circuit disabling the main booster regulator, and the on-board computer resetting itself, requiring its clock and subsystems to be reconfigured manually by ground control. On February 5, 1974, Mariner 10 became the twelfth spacecraft to reach Venus and the first to take and transmit images of the planet back to Earth. It also performed tests using radio waves, revealing the density, pressure, atmospheric composition, and temperature of the planet. Mariner 10 took 4,165 photos of the planet during its 8-day flyby.
Image via NASA
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Mercury & Mariner 10
As it passed by Venus, Mariner 10 performed the first interplanetary gravity-assisted maneuver, swinging its trajectory onto a path that would give it three flybys of Mercury. The probe reached Mercury on March 20, 1974, the first spacecraft to do so, and took the very first close-up photos of the asteroid-marked surface from just 437 miles away. As Mariner 10 looped around the Sun, Mercury completed two orbits, and the spacecraft and the planet once again passed each other on September 21, though at the considerably farther distance of nearly 30,000 miles. This time Mariner 10 flew under the planet snapping pictures of its south pole. Mariner 10 lost the use of its roll control in October but still remained on trajectory to pass over the planet's north pole on March 16, 1975, a year-and-a-half after it first left Earth. It passed just 200 miles above the surface, taking its final photos before running out of its maneuvering fuel on March 24. NASA turned off Mariner 10's transmitter shortly afterward, leaving the probe to orbit the Sun to this day.
Image via NASA
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Jupiter & Pioneer 10
Pioneer 10 launched on March 3, 1972 and immediately set a new speed record for a man-made object, traveling at 32,114 miles per hour and passing by the Moon in just 11 hours. In July, Pioneer became the first spacecraft to reach the asteroid belt. During its seven-month journey through the belt, the probe never passed closer than 5.5 million miles to an asteroid. Pioneer reached Jupiter on November 26, 1973 coming within 82,000 miles of it, and began taking photos (pictured is a composite of Pioneer's approach and departure). The ion radiation around the planet was 10,000 times higher than Earth's causing the probe's computer to malfunction, create false commands that ended up deleting some pictures of the moon Io and of Jupiter itself. By 1976, Pioneer 10 had passed beyond Saturn's orbit. By 1983, it was farther out in space than Neptune's orbit, making it the first man-made object to get beyond the planets of the solar system. Pioneer's mission officially came to an end on March 31, 1997 and the probe broadcast its final signal to Earth on January 23, 2003, nearly 30 years since launched and 7.5 billion miles away. Pioneer is still traveling at 27,000 miles per hour and is currently about 10 billion miles away. Assuming nothing unexpected happens to it, Pioneer 10 will continue on the path we sent it on until it reaches a star called Aldebaran in roughly two million years.
Image via NASA
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Saturn & Pioneer 11
Pioneer 11 launched just over a year after its predecessor, following a similar path through the asteroid belt and by Jupiter. But unlike Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 used Jupiter's gravity, to slingshot its way toward Saturn. The probe finally reached Saturn on September 1, 1979, over six years after its launch. During its journey toward the planet, Pioneer discovered a small moon orbiting Saturn, later dubbed Epimetheus, and came within 2,500 miles of accidentally colliding with it. The probe's close look of the planet revealed another ring around the planet that couldn't be seen from Earth. Since NASA had already launched two more probes toward Saturn, it was decided to use Pioneer to test their potentially hazardous path near the rings. Pioneer made it by the gas giant without incident, charting the gas giant's magnetic field and determining that its largest moon, Titan, was too cold to sustain life on its surface. Pioneer 11's mission was officially ended on September 22, 1995. It is currently on its way out of the solar system going 25,000 miles per hour.
Image via NASA
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Uranus & Voyager 2
Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, two weeks before Voyager 1. Both probes were sent toward Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 had a slightly different trajectory that would later take it to both Uranus and Neptune, making it the first and, thus far, only probe to travel to the solar system's two farthest planets. Nearly nine years after its launch, Voyager 2 reached Uranus on January 24, 1986, coming within 50,000 miles of it. The probe studied the planet's strange atmosphere, abnormal axial tilt, magnetic fields, and its relatively new rings, it measured the length of its day, and it discovered 11 moons orbiting the planet, all of which were named for Shakespearean heroines.
Image via NASA
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Neptune & Voyager 2
Three years later, Voyager 2 reached Neptune. The probe flew over the north pole so that the planet's immense gravity would pull the probe downward and put it into flyby trajectory of Neptune's largest moon, Triton. Voyager 2 discovered that Neptune had its own massive hurricanes, similar to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, though Neptune's form and dissipate in just a few years. The probe also discovered that Triton has tectonic movement and ice volcanoes, making it one of just three moons in the entire solar system that are geographically active. Since it used Neptune's gravity to angle itself downwards toward Triton, Voyager 2 is currently below the ecliptic plane of the solar system. Today, Voyager 2 is roughly 10 billion miles away from Earth, the second farthest object in the solar system after its twin, Voyager 1. Voyager 2 is still capable of transmitting information back to NASA and it will provide data about interstellar space as it leaves the solar system sometime around 2019. Around 2025, its batteries will finally fail and it will be one of a few derelict tokens of humanity's existence floating between stars.
Image via NASA