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Astronomy - Recent Discoveries and Developments

by Paul Rumsby

Astronomy - Recent Discoveries and Developments Gathers the most significant, ground breaking, headline making stories and presents them in an easy to read, easy to understand format. Each section is accompanied by colour images and illustrations which beautifully reinforces the subject. Makes essential reading for interested laypersons, Amateur and Professional Astronomers, In fact anyone with an attraction for this fascinating and absorbing subject.

The Perfect Catch-Up
The Perfect Introduction

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Recommended Beginners Guide

For a generation, Astronomy: A Self Teaching Guide has introduced hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide to the night sky. Now this classic beginner′s guide has been completely revised to bring it up to date with the latest discoveries and graphics.

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Featured Book Review

Interview with Dr Wesley Huntress - Soviet Robots in the Solar System

A new book from Springer/Praxis entitled ‘Soviet Robots in the Solar System’ written by Dr Wesley T Huntress Jr and Mikhail Ya. Marov details the Soviet Union’s drive to send machines into space to explore the Moon and Planets. The book covers all the major campaigns from the first lunar launch, a failed mission to impact the Moon’s surface in 1958, to the last deep space mission to Mars in 1996.

Set against the backdrop of the cold war, the book is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in space exploration and a fascinating account of the rivalry between East and West to be the first in its implementation. Each campaign is put into political and historical context and provides a wealth of detail on the scientific, engineering and technical aspects of the missions, as well as a summary of their achievements.

Co author Dr Wesley T Huntress Jr is a retired space scientist. Dr Huntress began his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech in 1968 where his pioneering research of chemical evolution in planetary atmospheres, comets and interstellar clouds gained his research team international recognition. Between 1992 and 1998 he was the Associate Administrator for Space Science at NASA’s Washington Headquarters where he was responsible for the agency’s robotic space science missions. He had a key role in creating and executing the massively successful Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. He also instituted the current line of Mars missions beginning with Mars Pathfinder in 1996, and was responsible for negotiating NASA’s cooperative ventures in space science with Europe, Japan and Russia.

Dr Huntress agreed to talk to Best Astronomy Books about his new book.

Wesley, during your career you have experienced the West’s exploration of space at close quarters, is this book on its Soviet counterpart something you have always wanted to write?

The launch of Sputnik at age 15 catapulted me into a career in space exploration and I joined JPL in the 1960s to send spacecraft to the planets. While JPL prepared its missions to the Moon, Mars or Venus, there was always looming in the background, like a dark spectre hanging over our heads, anxiety over what the Soviets were going to do to compete with us. The Soviets did everything in secrecy until perestroika in the 1980s. We did not know what they were planning, we often did not find out what they had attempted, or what had happened to their spacecraft, or even what they had accomplished in some cases.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, details began to leak out about the history of the Soviet space program. Having competed with the Soviets all those years in the dark, I wanted to shine a light on what they had done. It began as a personal research project and took over a decade to complete as more and more details slowly emerged out of Russia. Finally I realized I had a book and sought a Russian co-author with the contacts to dig deeper, to verify and add to what I had written, and bring a perspective from the Soviet side.

Mars 1 Spacecraft.

This is the first book, as far as we know, that covers the Soviet space program in such detail. Was the book as difficult to research and write as one might expect?

It was quite difficult to research because one had to uncover former Soviet secrets. While I was at NASA Headquarters I commissioned a monograph to reveal details of the Soviet Mars program from a Russian who participated in the program. And there are many other authors, including Russians involved in the program, who published many revelations and from whose work I benefited. They are credited in the book. It took a long time for all this to be revealed. So I accumulated my information slowly over time. The Soviet program did not leave a legacy of documentation and there remain many missing details. Hopefully in the future these details can be filled in.

In contrast to the West’s comparative openness the early Soviet Space program was shrouded in secrecy. Do you see this as an advantage or disadvantage over the western methodology?

Secrecy was an advantage to the Soviets because they could conceal both their technologies and their failures -- until the 1980s when they became more confident of their success and it became clear that openness and international cooperation worked to their benefit.

The Venera 7 descent capsule.

Which campaign(s) do you think delivered the most significant results?

For the Moon, the Lunas 16-24 missions that deployed the Lunokhod rovers and returned samples from the surface produced a wealth of information and were feats that have not been accomplished since. For Venus, the Venera 9-14 landers returned atmospheric data, images and measurements from the surface that coupled with the Vega 1 and 2 Venus balloons and landers revolutionized our understanding of the planet. The Soviets had very little success at Mars, but the Phobos 2 mission while failing its goal to explore the moon Phobos nevertheless returned a comprehensive set of first-class data on the planet itself.

You state in the book that any great enterprise is the product of people. Does any one person stand out for you as being a major influence to the successes and/or failures of the Soviet program?

There are two personalities who stand out. First Sergei Korolev, the USSR’s equivalent of Wernher von Braun in the US. Korolev, an engineer, was the founder and driving force behind the Soviet space program and is revered in Russia as the “Chief Designer”. The second is Mstislav Keldysh, a scientist, who worked hand-in-hand with Korolev to influence the Soviet government to undertake scientific exploration of space and to define the program. Keldysh is sometimes known as the “Chief Theoretician” of the Soviet space program.

The Soviet program had considerable success with the Venera missions to Venus but only partial success with Mars. In your opinion what were the main reasons for this disparity?

It is not entirely clear why the Soviets had so much success at Venus but fared so poorly at Mars. Venus is a considerably easier planet on which to land, albeit the surface conditions so hostile. Mars is one of the hardest planets on which to land, but the Soviets had trouble even with their orbiters. The Soviets were far bolder in their approach to Mars than the Americans and perhaps over-stressed their technical abilities. Some problems can be traced to poor development decisions and a lack of ground testing, but a lot seems to have been just plain old bad luck.

Phobos, image from Phobos 2 (processing by Ted Stryk.

With no launches since their failed mission to Mars in 1996, Russia’s return to space exploration is a daring mission to that planet’s larger moon Phobos due to launch in November 2011 with a sample return to Earth in 2014. Do you think the time is now right for a successful Russian mission?

The Fobos-Grunt mission launching in November is a very complex mission to be undertaken so long after the Mars 96 failure, but the Russians have always taken a daring approach to their planetary missions. Yes, the time is not just right but long overdue for a successful Russian mission.

What would success mean for Russia, in terms of space exploration, on the world stage?

It would mean that they are back in the game; that Russia is once again a major player in robotic space exploration. The entire enterprise will be richer for having them back. I wish them the very best of luck.

Wesley, thank you for giving us your time to carry out this interview and congratulations on ‘Soviet Robots’ we found it a fascinating and enjoyable book.

Images used from Soviet Robots in the Solar System with kind permission of the Author

Paul Rumsby
October 2011

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