Introduction To Space Probes

The overwhelming importance of the solar system lies in the fact that we are part of it; its origin and evolution are part of our own history. Astronomers have observed the solar system for the past few centuries via telescopes from the Earth's surface. Then, in 1957, a new method of exploration began with the launch of the first artificial satellite - humans had entered the Space Age. Since this time, humans have improved the technology of their spacecraft to the point where they can now send probes deep into the solar system to places never seen before. In the past few decades there have been space probes sent to explore the crater-strewn surface of Mercury, and the roasting hot surface of Venus. Humans have even walked on the surface of the Moon. We have placed robotic probes on the surface of Mars and used them to search for life on this red planet. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, together with their many moons and ring systems, have also undergone extensive exploration by space probes. Saturn's rings are arguably the flattest structure in the solar system, but from end to end they would reach from Earth to the Moon. The cold icy planets of Uranus and Neptune also have ring systems, and more moons than previously thought. In the past few years we have also discovered other planet-like bodies beyond Neptune and Pluto, in far-out regions of the solar system called the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. These new discoveries have made astronomers re-examine their understanding of the solar system.

This exploration has revealed that the Earth's planetary neighbours are fascinating worlds. Today we stand on the threshold of the next phase of planetary exploration. Many new missions are currently underway, and many more are being planned.

This book explores recent changes to our understanding of the solar system, in particular the effect on this understanding of the International Astronomical Union's 2006 revised definition of a planet. This book is therefore also a record of the many discoveries made about the solar system in recent years using space technology.

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