May 29, 2020

Review: Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

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Robotic space exploration has finally come of age. Recent successes, such as the pioneering landing via sky crane of the Mars Rover Curiosity by NASA have demonstrated a capability to triumph after a hard-won history often marked by failure.

This week’s review titled Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration by Chris Impey and Holly Henry chronicles the often overlooked history of robotic exploration of the solar system. Robots can go more cheaply and effectively where humans can’t, and don’t demand a return ticket. Out from Princeton University Press, Dreams of Other Worlds is a timely snapshot of the state of unmanned space exploration. Such a chronicle couldn’t come any sooner, as space exploration budgets are being slashed to historic lows. Current issues, such as the lingering plutonium shortage and the late restart of plutonium production may result in our eyes in the outer solar system going dark all together in the next decade.

But Dreams of Other Worlds also paints an optimistic future as it traces the early victories of Voyager and Viking right up to the present day. Many have heard of such cultural icons as the Hubble Space Telescope and Curiosity, but few know of the outstanding science being done by such unsung automated heroes as WISE, Spitzer, Kepler and Cassini. In the case of Voyagers I and II, both missions have spanned generations of researchers and are expected to be still going strong into the next decade. And to think, when the Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977, 8-tracks were state of the art!

But beyond just the missions, Dreams of Other Worlds also tells the human saga of space exploration. How have these discoveries changed our perception of our place in the universe? What do these missions mean to the men and women who devote their careers to them? What weird and wonderful forms of public outreach transpire when robots tweet? It’s sobering to think that all missions to the outer solar system have occurred (or hitched a ride from, in the case of the European Space Agency’s Huygens Titan lander) as a result of NASA’s efforts.

Dreams of Other Worlds also looks at missions that seek to understand our often tempestuous host star, such as Ulysses and the Solar Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Open for business since 1995, SOHO has monitored the Sun for a period of time longer than one complete solar cycle and continues to perform some outstanding science. Dreams of Other Worlds also highlights the unprecedented role that citizen scientists have played in the new era of space exploration, from discovering sungrazing comets via SOHO, to searching for specks of interstellar dust brought back to Earth via the Stardust mission and more, all carried out online.

Finally, Dreams of Other Worlds takes a look at the future, as the next generation of observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Gaia astrometry mission head off into space. What will the next big revolution be? One thing is true about scientific exploration; in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, we often “don’t know what we don’t know” until we go there and take a look!

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