The Growing Robot Era
The 1980's saw a renewed interest in the robotic missions as, in addition to Russians and Americans, Japanese and European countries used robotic spacecrafts to study Halley’s Comet, which was making a re-entry into the inner solar system. In 1985, for the first time in the history of space exploration, Japan sent a spacecraft, Sakigake to study comet Hailey. The European Space Agency, too, became part of the robotic space exploration group with its Giotto mission to study comet Halley in 1986. Americans were less active in robotic missions during this period, only launching two spacecraft, namely the International Cometary Explorer in 1985 to comet Halley and the Magellan spacecraft to Venus in 1989. Thus began a robotic era with more and more nations sending robotic spacecraft to study the local cosmic bodies.
In 2003, NASA used two robotic rovers to study the Mars surface to find the presence of water. NASA first used the robot rover named Sojourner during the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. China is using robot to explore the lunar surface before it takes the first Chinese astronauts to the moon. Change 1, the orbiter launched in 2007 marked the beginning of China's robotic lunar mission.
NASA is planning to send a humanoid robot named Robonaut 2 to the International Space Station in September 2010. It is designed in such a way that it is capable of using all the tools which its human companions inside the space station use.
Dextre, the Canadian humanoid robotic arm was the first to become part of ISS. This Canadarm is used to carry out maintenance tasks on the International Space Station. Even Robonaut 2 is not fully capable of operating in all hostile conditions but its stay on the ISS will help scientists to make modifications so that they will become an indispensable part of space missions.
Japan is planning to set up its own research station on the lunar surface by 2025, which will be operated completely by humanoid robots. It is supposed to begin with the launching of its first humanoid robot to the Moon by 2015. Recently, in May 2010, Japan launched an orbiter PLANET - C to the Venus.
Venus Express is the European Space Agency's (ESA) orbiter launched in 2005 to explore the atmosphere of Venus. In 1990 ESA together with NASA launched Ulysses, an orbiter to study the Sun followed by SOHO in 1996 to gather information on the Sun's interior structure, the core, corona and solar winds. ESA is planning to send another orbiter named Solar Orbiter by 2015 to have a closer look at the Sun. Cassini, launched jointly by ESA, NASA and Italian Space Agency in 1997 is in orbit about the Saturnian system, executing multiple flybys of the many moons of the ringed planet.
India became part of space probe community with the launching of its orbiter Chandrayaan I in 2008 to the Moon, and it was a partial success. But the lander, Moon Impact Probe (MIP) which followed this was successful. Galileo, the orbiter launched in 1995 to Jupiter was a joint venture of Germany and America.
With the advancement in science and technology space probes may become even cheaper, more efficient and more numerous.