Move over, Sir Edmond Halley. Yours is not the only celestial spectacular this year. Far from it.
By the time 1986 has ended, scientists hope to have pulled off a host of extravaganzas in what promises to be the best year ever for space science.
The year's highlight will be the summer launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, a $1.2-billion orbiting marvel that will allow astronomers to peer so far into the universe that they will almost see back to the beginning of time. The telescope, which some regard as the most important scientific instrument ever built, will be able to examine celestial objects as they appeared up to 12 billion years ago.
Banner Year in Space
Add to that the launching of one spacecraft to study the sun and of another to probe Jupiter as well as the first launching of a manned vehicle into polar orbit around the Earth and you have the ingredients for a banner year.
Jesse Moore, head of the U.S. space shuttle program, said, "1986 will be a spectacular year for us."
No wonder the brightness of Halley's Comet dims a bit as it intrudes on the busiest year in the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
For all the excitement, however, some Californians will remember 1986 as the year the space program came home. NASA and the Defense Department expect to begin launching space shuttles from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Central California coast as early as mid-July; so far, all manned space flights have begun at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and most have ended at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
Space buffs, though, need not wait until July to begin celebrating this extraordinary new year.
A Uranus Flyby
Later this month, a hardy, little spacecraft called Voyager 2, the same one that furnished spectacular photographs of Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981, will fly past the planet Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun, as scientists continue to explore what Burton Edelson, the NASA chief scientist, describes as the solar system's "cold countryside."
On Jan. 24, Voyager will pierce the Uranian system like a bullet through a target, passing among the planet's nine mysterious rings and its five known moons, to give scientists their first close-up look at a strange planet that has been inexplicably tipped over on its side. Uranus is pointing its south pole at the sun. From the Earth, the system looks much like a target. (Voyager 2 is expected to return pictures from Neptune, the eighth planet, in 1989, before leaving the solar system forever.)
Space buffs who like their schedules compact might want to set aside much of May for near back-to-back shuttle launches from the Kennedy Space Center. Two missions with major scientific objectives will be launched--one five days after the other ends--demonstrating the maturity of the shuttle program. By May, NASA will have its second Kennedy launch complex completed, giving it the capacity for near-simultaneous launches.
The first May mission is what is left of what was to have been a major U.S.-European effort, with NASA and the European Space Agency each furnishing satellites for a study of the sun's polar regions. Because of other priorities and budgetary considerations, NASA abandoned its part of the project, so only the European probe will be launched. NASA remains a project partner in that the U.S. agency will launch the probe from the shuttle May 15.
Scientists have long wanted to get a look at the sun's polar areas, where so much of the solar activity that affects the Earth's weather is thought to originate. That is no easy task, however, because it requires the probe to travel in an orbit that is perpendicular to the Earth's. The craft, called Ulysses, will use Jupiter as a gravitational turning post, flinging itself out of the plain of the Earth's orbit and over the sun's poles. It is scheduled to arrive there in late 1989.
On May 21, five days after that launching mission ends, the second mission begins when the spacecraft Galileo will be launched toward Jupiter. NASA hopes to put a slight detour into Galileo's course, sending it in for a close encounter with the asteroid 29 Amphitrite before it flies on to Jupiter. It will take two and a half years to reach Jupiter and NASA will not decide until after the launch whether it wants the craft to fly past the asteroid.
Galileo will go into orbit around the giant planet and even send a probe into its dense atmosphere. The probe is expected to send back data for about an hour before it is crushed by the heavy ammonia clouds around the planet.
In both missions, the payloads will be boosted from the shuttle with powerful Atlas-Centaur rockets, the first time that that system has been used.