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How amazing is that?

23 October 2020

I never ceased to be amazed by mankind's ingenuity and technological abilities, at least when it comes to the issue of exploring space.

Just a matter of hours ago, a NASA craft successfully performed a "touch and go" on a tiny, rocky asteroid some 300 million Km from earth.

During this maneuver, it collected a tiny sample of the asteroid that will later be returned to earth so as to further our understanding of how the solar system was formed.

Stop and think about this for a moment.

We built and deployed a spacecraft that could not only locate and land (albeit for just a few seconds) on a tiny piece of space rock that is more than 15 light-minutes away, but we're also going to bring a bit of that rock back to earth.

That's some clever stuff right there!

Unfortunately (perhaps they're using Swiss Mail), the sample of the asteroid Benu won't actually make it back to earth until some time in 2023 but it will still be incredibly impressive.

This isn't the first mission to return a bit of space rock from a celestial body but never the less, it is certainly a triumph, not only for NASA but for mankind in general.

This mission is even more impressive when I recall that, as a child, I was equally gobsmacked that we'd even been able to fire a crash-lander probe onto the surface of the moon.

It was the Russians who first managed to get a probe to the moon back in 1959 with their Luna 2 mission, although I don't remember that -- I was too young.

The Luna 3 craft flew past the far side of the moon just a month later and returned the first-ever images of that previously unseen aspect.

My first memory of a lunar probe was probably Ranger 6, a small ball of technology that was unceremoniously crashed into the surface of the moon in February 1964, several years after Russia's first successful mission. Sadly, Ranger 6 was a bit of a flop, apparently the failure of its power supply meant it never returned the much anticipated pictures it was designed to capture.

It would be another six months before the USA would finally get a successful point on the board. Ranger 7 managed to return a series of images taken during its approach to the moon but was destroyed on impact. I remember spending hours looking at those grainy, low-res, monochromatic images in the paper when they were published -- trying to make out any details that might suggest wonderful things existed on our nearest neighbour.

The pace of development and innovation picked up enormously in the next few years, with the USA managing its first "soft landing" in June of 1966. The images returned by Surveyor 1 wowed the world. At last, the view from the surface of the moon could be seen by everyone on earth by way of the pictures it returned.

I recall the bitter disappointment that the moon was obviously not going to be home to any life and that it was hugely different to the promises made by all the science fiction books I'd been reading at the time.

And now, some half a century later, we're able to pinpoint tiny bits of rock, millions of miles from earth, and grab a chunk of it.

Bloody amazing.

Now if we could just find a cure for the common cold... :-D

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