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Review: Space Invaders

Space Invaders: How Robotic Spacecraft Explore the Solar System
by Michel van Pelt
Copernicus Books, 2007
hardcover, 314 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-387-33232-4

This Saturday NASA is scheduled to launch Dawn, the first mission to two of the largest asteroids in the solar system, Ceres and Vesta. Dawn’s path to space hasn’t been a smooth one: its launch was recently pushed back a week because of problems with a crane at the launch pad used to assemble the Delta 2 rocket that will launch it. Meanwhile, the spacecraft itself suffered some minor damage to a solar panel while waiting out the delay; fortunately, the damage was easily repaired. The mission itself was previously in jeopardy—at one point even canceled, only to be reinstated a few weeks later—because of other technical problems and budget overruns.

Certainly, building spacecraft to explore the solar system is still a challenging task, nearly fifty years after the Soviet Union and the United States launched the first robotic missions to the Moon. However, unless those technical issues cause the mission to fail, there’s very little attention paid to the nuts-and-bolts of planetary robotic spacecraft versus the science they do. One new book, Space Invaders, seeks to rectify this by explaining what it takes to send a spacecraft to the far corners of the solar system.

van Pelt sees robotic missions as complementary to eventual human missions; they are “scouts that tell us what lies ahead and can go where we yet fear to tread.”

In Space Invaders, Michel van Pelt, a cost and systems engineer with ESA, walks the reader through the steps needed to design, develop, and launch a planetary mission. He covers everything from the various phases of project management (Phase A, Phase B, etc.) to the key subsystems of a spacecraft to the various types of instruments such spacecraft carry and the types of scientific data they can provide. There’s also a discussion of the various ways such missions can end and what kinds of future missions might be in store for planetary exploration. The book is written for people who are not necessarily familiar with space exploration, so there’s some basic explanatory material in the book about orbits and rocket design. However, van Pelt provides plenty of more detailed information as well.

The longest chapter of the book, Chapter 7, is devoted to the exploration of the solar system itself, and it is arguably the weakest chapter in the book. It’s difficult to compress the history of planetary exploration—a topic entire books are devoted to—into 71 pages and do it justice. While it’s possible that someone unfamiliar with this history will find the chapter useful, most readers with some knowledge of the missions that have gone to the Moon, Mars, Venus, and other places in the solar system can safely skim through this chapter and move on to the final portions of the book.

While van Pelt clearly acknowledges the capabilities of robotic spacecraft and the benefits of using them to explore the solar system, he does not use Space Invaders to argue that robotics are inherently superior to humans in space. Instead, adopting a line of argument that has become accepted among many space advocates, he sees robotic missions as complementary to eventual human missions; they are “scouts that tell us what lies ahead and can go where we yet fear to tread.” Although it may be many decades before humans make it to the main asteroid belt, Dawn will soon join that cadre of scouts studying the solar system.