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Bill DunfordOctober 30, 2014

A (Difficult) Day in the Solar System

October 28, 2014 was a bad day at the launch pad. People in the space industry will sometimes use that euphemism to describe a catastrophic failure during a rocket launch. That's exactly what happened on Tuesday when a privately built Antares rocket carrying a crew-less cargo craft exploded shortly after liftoff. Both in person and online, crowds watched in shock as a fireball, followed by a gut-wrenching shock wave, ripped the air. 

No one was hurt. But almost 5,000 pounds of cargo was lost, including supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station, as well as scientific experiments built by professionals and student teams. The incident is a setback for many individual careers, and possibly for the growing commercial space industry. You can dive into details about the incident here and here.

For anyone interested in exploration, it was a deeply disappointing day. No one who supports space travel likes a reminder of how difficult and dangerous it remains. Still, a little perspective is in order. A setback is a setback, but we are still witnessing one of the most exciting eras of exploration in human history.

Every once in a while I like to scan the online archives to find pictures taken by humanity's far-flung fleet of robotic spacecraft, images that are all taken on the same day. Even on difficult days like October 28...maybe especially on days like's an instructive exercise.

Within about 24 hours before and after the rocket explosion, amazing things were taking place all across the solar system. In fact, within a day there were not one but two successful launches, including another space station supply run that had already been planned.

Cargo Ship Makes a Call


Cargo Ship Makes a Call
A Russian Progress 57 cargo ship carrying three tons of food and other supplies arrives at the International Space Station on October 29, 2014.

Throughout the day's events, the six people currently living on board the space station were never in danger. They could watch the world spin below, confident in the additional supply missions already underway or in the planning stages. (Did you know you can watch too?)

Blue Sunrise

NASA / Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center / Bill Dunford

Blue Sunrise
An automatic camera aboard the International Space Station allowed viewers on the web to watch live as the sun rose over the Indian Ocean on October 28, 2014. Some image artifacts have been removed.

It doesn't stop there. A constellation of great space-based observatories constantly circle the Earth, staring deep into space. The Solar Dynamics Observatory keeps a constant watch on the sun. At almost the very moment of the explosion, it captured this view of our living star.

Shine On


Shine On
The sun as observed from the Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on October 28, 2014. An especially active region of sunspots is visible near the lower right part of the disc.

On the same day, an experimental Chinese spacecraft was sailing around the far side of the moon, testing the technologies needed to return a lunar sample to the Earth. Along the way, it glimpsed a truly extraordinary view. 

Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1


Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014.

Meanwhile, at Mars there were six robotic missions exploring in orbit and on the ground. At a giant crater called Endeavour, the Opportunity rover surveyed the scene. It was a fairly ordinary day...if you can call it ordinary that the rover is now nearly 4,000 harsh Martian days into a mission that would have been considered a success if it had lasted 90.


"Just" Another Day on Mars
The rim of Endeavour Crater, Mars, as seen by one of the Opportunity rover's hazard avoidance cameras (left) and navigation camera (right) on October 28, 2014, which was the 3825th Martian day of the robotic geologist's 90-day mission.

On the other side of the planet, the Curiosity rover was continuing its own explorations in the dramatic landscapes of Gale Crater. 

Late Martian Afternoon

NASA / JPL / Bill Dunford

Late Martian Afternoon
The Mars Curiosity rover imaged a nearby rocky ridge on October 29, 2014.

Far deeper in the sky, the Cassini spacecraft was spinning through its long, looping, silent dance with Saturn and its moons.

The Sixth Planet


The Sixth Planet
Cassini caught this view of Saturn on October 28, 2014 at a distance of about 2,545,700 kilometers (1,581,800 miles).

Cloud World

NASA / JPL / SSI / Emily Lakdawalla

Cloud World
Saturn's moon Titan as seen by the Cassini spacecraft on October 27, 2014

As if all this weren't enough, these events happened to coincide with another unprecedented adventure: the Rosetta mission was preparing to land the first-ever probe on the surface of a comet within a few short weeks. Just days before, it was mapping the surface of the comet in stunningly fine detail, uncovering the secrets of a small world that had just flown in from the dark outer reaches of the solar system.

The Face of a Comet

ESA / Rosetta / NavCam

The Face of a Comet
The intricate surface of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as observed by Rosetta's NavCam on October 26, 2014. This mosaic of four images covers an area of about 1200 x 1350 meters. It was released on October 29.

Given people's need, this apparently unquenchable urge, to see what lies over the horizon, it seems unlikely that any one setback will stop us. I'm pretty sure that another Antares, or a craft very like it, will stand on a launch pad again. It will keep the crowds breathless during the last agonizing seconds of the countdown. As it disappears into the sky on a perfect column of flame, they will cheer.


NASA/Joel Kowsky

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, is seen on launch Pad-0A during sunrise, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Two days later, the vehicles were destroyed in an explosion soon after liftoff. However, on several other occasions similar rockets flew successfully, and hopeful pre-launch moments like this one will be repeated many times.

Read more: Cassini, Titan, the Sun, spacecraft, Chang'E program, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), Saturn, solar observing spacecraft, Saturn's rings, commercial spaceflight, Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, Opportunity, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars Exploration Rovers, Earth, Mars, International Space Station

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Emily Lakdwalla
The Planetary Fund

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