Fenisse

Beyond Earth - An RP-1 based alternate space race - Update XXXIII - The Seat with the Clearest View

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XXXIII: The Way to Progress, Part 2

The Seat with the Clearest View

 

While the world celebrated the successful flight of Commander Isaac Perry aboard Aquarius 4, the IASRDA was still managing another, almost as important, but less flashy, mission. The two probes that had been sent to Mars in September of the previous year, Pathfinder 2 and 3, were still on their way to the red planet. Of course, in the eye of the public a manned spaceflight was of far greater importance compared to sending what essentially was a glorified calculator to a red rock floating somewhere in space. It is to be said, however, that if human spaceflight to low Earth orbit is hard (even more so back then, in 1961), placing something on a course to a planet millions of kilometers away is roughly equivalent to standing on a ridge, throwing a rock at a building a couple of thousand meters away, and hitting the rightmost third floor window dead center. While blindfolded.

The technology of the time certainly didn’t help either. Plagued by electrical failures, system errors, mechanical problems, communications breakdowns; not to mention the fact that launch vehicles of the time lacked the accuracy necessary to send a probe on the correct trajectory to the Moon, let alone Mars. But that hadn’t stopped the IASRDA from trying; after all, people often only think about whether they can do something, not if they actually should. This time, however, one could argue that it had been for the best.

The two Mars probes had been in flight for not even three months, and they already were to perform a course correction maneuver that would (hopefully) bring them to within 20,000km from the red planet. The first of the twins to carry out the burn was actually the second one, Pathfinder 3, on October 27, 1961. Pathfinder 2 was planned to follow suit just over a month later, on November 30th.

Planned is the fundamental word here, because contact with the probe was abruptly lost on the 26th of November, without any apparent explanation. Further attempts to communicate with the spacecraft in the following days were unsuccessful, and the mission was declared a failure shortly thereafter. The mystery of what had happened to the probe still laid unsolved for some more days, until a thorough examination of the last moments of telemetry that had been relayed to Earth revealed a harrowing detail.

A problem with the main communications array power supply (probably related to the vast amounts of radiation in the interplanetary medium) had apparently completely fried the spacecraft’s antennae; the extent of the damage was not known – it was completely possible that the probe was still functioning, and had performed the course correction, but unable to communicate back to Earth; just as it was feasible that the entirety of the spacecraft’s circuits had been affected and it was dead in the void.

It was assumed that the same identical failure was the root cause of the loss of contact with the Pathfinder 1 mission earlier in the year. The problem would be rectified in later probe designs, but it was already too late for the other Mars probe: it already was well underway to its destination. An imperfect solution was devised for Pathfinder 3: the engineers would simply order the spacecraft to switch to the smaller (due to weight limitations) backup supply, thus limiting its data transmission capability, but at least increasing the chances the probe would make it to its destination in hopefully one piece.

Unfortunately for the probe, which was still doing its best to function, the mission became a symbol of bad luck, so much that personnel assigned to it did their best to not mention the name “Pathfinder” unless strictly necessary; superstitiously believing that if they did not nominate it, it wouldn’t encounter any more issues. This, as one might expect, didn’t help bring publicity to the already almost forgotten program. Nonetheless, Pathfinder 3 was still alive, if barely, and still collecting very useful data about the radiation environment encountered in the interplanetary medium.

 

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SIMULATION. Pathfinder 3 in flight towards Mars, 43 days from encounter. The Milky Way is in the background.

After a lengthy trek of nearly 320 days (roughly 10.5 months), and despite all odds being stacked against it, on August 3rd 1961 Pathfinder 3 finally reached the sphere of influence of the Red Planet, starting roughly 574000 kilometers from the celestial body. Of course, at that distance the effects of its gravity well were minimal at best, but just enough to be recorded by the probe’s onboard sensors.

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SIMULATION. Pathfinder 3 heading towards the Red Planet, having just entered its SOI. Both Phobos and Deimos are too faint to be seen.

The spacecraft approached Mars from “below”, if we assume its north pole to be the ‘top’, and would have its closest approach with the planet two days and a half later, at around 4.9 thousand kilometers from the surface (more precise measurements would come in down the line) and an inclination of 71.195°. The spacecraft would be freed by the influence of the celestial body five days after first entering it, completing the fly-by phase of the mission.

Pathfinder 3 was given some time to adjust its orientation-keeping gear to the new conditions, and at 10:19 UT on August 3rd science mode was remotely activated. Unfortunately, since the probe was operating on backup power, not all of the experiments could be run at the same time, so the engineers manually selected those in operation at a single time. The crews on the ground regretted not being able to have enough weight margins for a camera, as the sight must have been truly magnificent.

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SIMULATION. 174 thousand km away from Mars, and counting.

The data received was, however, still of incredible scientific value. The early magnetometer and cosmic ray recordings from high orbit revealed that Mars apparently possessed no magnetic field at those altitudes, the infrared spectrometer hypothesized an average surface temperature in the range of 200K, much lower than that of Earth (287K), some micrometeorite impacts were also recorded; the other information seemed consistent with already known evidence.

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SIMULATION. Martian ground features become visible as Pathfinder 3 is 52 thousand kilometers from the planet.

As Pathfinder 3 came closer to Mars it finally started to detect a really faint magnetic field, nowhere as extensive nor complex as Earth’s own, so weak that much of the solar radiation probably reached the surface almost unpunished. The planet’s thin atmosphere was revealed to be constituted mostly of carbon dioxide, with surface pressure varying between 400 to 700Pa, less than 1% of that of Earth. The characteristic red color of Mars was probably owed to some form of iron oxide sand or gravel covering the surface, but nothing further could be gathered by Pathfinder 3’s primitive instrumentation. Alas, no sign of little green men could be found.

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SIMULATION. 19000km away from Mars; Uranus is visible just below the space probe.

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SIMULATION. 6000km away, the Valles Tharsineris canyon system is clearly visible from this angle.

The spacecraft’s closest approach to Mars occurred, as calculated, at an altitude of 4942km, with a maximum relative velocity between the two of 4.107km/s. Had the probe been equipped with a camera, it would probably have been able to catch sight of the planet’s ice-covered north pole, whose presence was however recorded by the onboard instrumentation. The advantage of the fly-by trajectory chosen for Pathfinder 3 was that the spacecraft was able to remain in constant communication with Earth, something truly invaluable considering the limited transmission capability when resorting to backup power.

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SIMULATION. At periapsis. Mars' north pole is visible. If you look at the top left of the frame you may be able to see Phobos. The bottom-left speck is a star.

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SIMULATION. Pathfinder 3 leaves Mars. From left to right, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are clearly visible in the background.

The spacecraft finally left the sphere of influence of the Red Planet on August 8th, but its mission would continue on for some more months as it kept gathering data on interplanetary space.

 

Pathfinder 3 was one of the many unsung heroes of the IASRDA space program, almost forgotten in the midst of the first manned spaceflights, despite being perhaps one of the most important, and groundbreaking, missions ever attempted by the Agency thus far, ranking up there with Ethereal 1 and Aquarius 4. The data obtained by the probe was absolutely priceless, both confirming and disproving many an astronomer’s theories; but even more than that, Pathfinder 3 was the first human-made spacecraft to ever successfully reach another planet, not to mention the first to ever reach Mars, while also measuring its magnetic field, and giving a first glimpse at what its surface conditions may be.

Last but not least, this mission taught the IASRDA several important lessons, first and foremost how to handle an interplanetary mission. The legacy of Pathfinder 3 is vast; the equipment testing procedures were revised significantly (and thus saving at least three lives in the future) in the aftermath of the loss of two of the three probes; as a result of its observations on solar winds and cosmic rays the IASRDA found out that human spaceflight beyond the relative safety of low Earth orbit would be harder than originally thought; the Deep Space Network would be created to better track and communicate with spacecraft in deep space (hence the name); the Agency learnt that, no matter how unimportant sounding something is, it should always be publicized, researched, or analyzed, for it is often in small details where the truth rests; and, finally, that no matter the hardships one might encounter, the night shall, sooner or later, come to pass.

 

Yes, it’s a relatively small update, especially when compared to Stairway to Heaven, but it’s probably one of the most important ones I’ve written thus far, if only for all the advancements the IASRDA has, and will, make as a result of Pathfinder 3. As you may have noticed, screenshot (what I call simulations in-universe) quality has improved significantly; that is a result of me installing the amazing KSP3P mod, which adds post-processing effects to KSP. I nearly destroyed my install by installing a wrong version of the mod, but as you can see by the fact the update is here I managed to fix it. Please don’t install mods at 4 in the morning, especially if the instance you’re modding is already unstable as is.

General ramblings aside (to which you probably are accustomed by now), I hope you have enjoyed the update. See you soon.

Additional information (thanks @Kerballing (Got Dunked On)!): I rolled a dice, and chose to perform Pathfinder 2's course correction. Though the IASRDA would never know it (and that's why no further mention of the probe is made in the update), the spacecraft was still working, just unable to communicate back to Earth. With all probability it made it to Mars (a few days after Pathfinder 3 did), but unfortunately I really wanted to spend those science points and... uhm... I forgot to check. Welp.

Edited by Fenisse
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1 hour ago, Kerballing (Got Dunked On) said:

So what happened to Pathfinder 2

I actually performed Pathfinder 2's course correction; I rolled a dice and decided for the probe to be still working, but incapable of communicating to Earth, which is a terrible fate, even more so than abruptly suffering the robotic equivalent of a heart attack. It probably (Kraken willingly) encountered Mars after all, I didn't check.

I did not mention that because the updates are in-universe, so the IASRDA wouldn't know about that. Now that I think about it I should include it in the ending note. Thank you for giving me a new idea!

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While I'm working on the next update (actually quite a few of them at the same time), I've also been learning how to use a drawing tablet (for completely different purposes), and have put my brother's Adobe subscription to good (citation needed) use.

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A poorly drawn sketch of Isaac Perry's Aquarius Block 1A Spacesuit, as used during the Aquarius 4 flight. Obviously based on the (famous) photograph of Gordon Cooper wearing his own Mark 4 spacesuit.
Notice the mission patch on the right shoulder, and the IASRDA patch on the left side of the chest. I chose Perry purely because I already had designed the mission patch.

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