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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 that...it'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.

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?)

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.

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. 

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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, Chang'e 5

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