This Week in STEM: Space Ain’t Easy

This Week in STEM: Space Ain’t Easy

This Week in STEM: Space Ain’t Easy

Blog Contributed by Dr. Christopher Murphy, Chief Strategic Growth & Communications Officer

(Title image credits: NASA)

This Week in STEM, we take a brief look into two success stories involving satellites, learning from mistakes, and building upon overwhelming successes.

Where is the Edge of the Solar System?

On December 10, the NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft joined its twin Voyager 1 as the second man-made object ever to have left the Sun’s protective bubble and fly into the interstellar space between the stars.  

Voyager 2 first launched (before its sister spacecraft) in August 1977, and it has provided scientists with unprecedented observations of Jupiter Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft were originally built to last five years. But as the mission went on, and with the successful achievement of all its objectives, NASA engineers reprogrammed the spacecraft remotely as they flew across the solar system.

As their original mission was extended from five years to stretch across five decades, Voyager 1 and 2 would explore all of the outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.

NASA Goddard published this video to help us better understand Where is the edge of the Solar System?


As a testament to the amazing talents and ingenuity of the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at California Institute of Technology the spacecraft should be able to retrieve priceless data from a handful of instruments, including ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers, magnetometer, and planetary radio astronomy instrumentation, for the next 20-30 years.

From a major programming error to proving Einstein’s Theory of Relativity …

In 2014, two of the 26 satellites in the European Space Agency’s Galileo global navigation system, like the one pictured above, were accidentally launched into elliptical orbits instead of circular ones (as noted in Science). While the elliptical orbits were lousy in aiding navigation systems, it provided the clever and opportunistic ESA scientists with a chance to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In brief, the theory posited that free-falling objects beyond our atmosphere follow a straight path within the curved space-time continuum, which would appear to those on the ground as in the shape of a parabolic arc. That motion causes a warping effect resulting in time ticking more slowly near more massive bodies.  

When applying this theory to the botched launch of the two satellites, scientists were able to measure how time actually sped up or slowed down (by about one part in 10 billion) over the course of each orbit. This shift in time proved Einstein’s theory to be fact. As these satellites were not intended to conduct this experiment, another experiment is set to launch in 2020 to continue the research.