Last week, NASA announced that Voyager 1, launched 36 years ago, has finally left our solar system and entered interstellar space. A mind-blowing achievement which will allow scientists to confirm some of their theories and expectations of what we will find beyond the reach of our Sun. But Voyager, impressive though it is, is only one of the amazing journeys we are making into space, some with great fanfares and trumpets, like the Mars Rovers expeditions, some less well known but no less important and inspiring for the information they send back. In this book, the authors tell us about eleven of these missions, what scientists have learned from them and how they have impacted on the popular imagination and culture.
The main thrust of the book is on the search for conditions suitable for life either on planets within our solar system or on the exoplanets that are now being identified exponentially. The early chapters cover the missions to planets and objects within our own solar system and the later part of the book is given over to the various observational missions looking beyond our little bit of the universe and back through space-time to the earliest observable point after the big bang. The enthusiasm of the authors is infectious and the book is written in such a way that it is easily accessible to the non-scientists among us. It is liberally illustrated with diagrams to help explain some of the concepts as well as pictures from Hubble and other observatories.
The authors start with a look at the Mars missions - the Viking and MER Rovers. They explain the technical marvels that got us there and contrast that with the extremely limited computing and camera facilities that were available, particularly on the Viking Rovers. While sadly the rovers have not found any little green men, they have found clear indications of water in the past and perhaps even still. We get to find out a little about the team behind the mission and how the information sent back changed how scientists thought about the conditions necessary to support life. The style is almost conversational and the authors very enjoyably anthropomorphise the robotic rovers, making this reader at least feel sorry for their little 'broken arm' and 'limp' - indeed, when one of the rovers finally 'died' (very bravely, I might add) I had to suppress a little tear!
The Voyager mission itself takes us first to Uranus and Jupiter before heading out beyond the edge of the solar system, while Cassini and Huygens study Saturn and its moons. As the journeys unfold, we are told how the power required to travel these distances is achieved through 'gravity assist' - using the gravity of the planets themselves as a kind of slingshot. The authors discuss how the real science of these missions inspired programmes like Star Trek and were in turn influenced by them. In fact, NASA used Nichelle Nicholls (Lt. Uhura) as a figurehead to inspire more women and minorities to enter the field.
The Stardust mission successfully captured dust from the tail of the Wild 2 comet. In this fascinating chapter, the authors explain how comets are seen as the bringers of life and also the harbingers of destruction. They explain in relatively simple terms that we are indeed stardust, as the song says. They remind us of the thrilling pictures of Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter and how those images encouraged the US government to authorise NASA to monitor possible comet threats to Earth. As well as particles from Wild 2, Stardust also captured particles from the surrounding space, and the authors explain how 'open science' projects have been used to involve the public in locating these tiny, sparse particles in the aerogel that trapped them. And we are told that we have the technology to 'capture' comets into Earth orbit should we choose and use them for mining precious metals or also as a means to provide a lift off point and all the fuel required for future space missions.
The later chapters cover the observational missions - SOHO, Hipparcos, Spitzer, Chandra, Hubble and WMAP. These missions have expanded our knowledge of the universe and shed light on its origins, confirming some of the theories that had been posited while forcing re-evaluation of others. At the same time, they are daily discovering exoplanets that may be able to support life. The authors take us back through the history of cosmology from its earliest days and bring us up to date on the current theories, clearly differentiating between what is known and what has not yet been proved. We hear of the amazing technology behind these missions, the people who in some cases have spent an entire career on them, and what they have taught us. The near-disasters are covered too - the early days of the Hubble mission dogged by technical problems which led to some of the most inspiring spacewalks to date. This whole section is much more science-heavy and I struggled a few times to really grasp the concepts, but not often - on the whole, the authors were able to simplify to a level that allowed me to follow along.
A very accessible and hugely inspiring book - inspirational not just about the sheer glory of the universe, but about the amazing people who are allowing us to learn about it through them. The concluding chapter looks ahead to the exciting future missions that are on the horizon, as well as some that have already begun - the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars, better studies of Jupiter's moons, and observational missions to discover 'first light' and investigate the theory of 'inflation' following the big bang; and of course the continuing search for extraterrestrial life. Stirring stuff! If you have even the smallest amount of geekiness in your soul, I heartily recommend this to you.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.