Ulysses, a space craft launched in October 1990 was the first real joint-venture between the European Space Agency [ESA] and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]. This space craft will send its final communication on June 30, 2009. Its primary mission was to characterize the Sun and its influence on the space environment. Ulysses did just that, concentrating on the Sun’s north and south poles.
ESA’s mission is to “shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.” Scientists, engineers, information technology specialists, and administrative personnel work towards this end. ESA is funded by a financial contribution from all the Agency’s Member States, mostly a roll call of the European Union, including Belgium, Greece, Slovenia, Germany, and France.
NASA is more poetic in its mission statement: “To improve life here, To extend life there, To find life beyond.” Its vision is to understand and protect our planet. Funding for NASA comes from the Federal Budget of the United States, garnered from taxes on the people of its member states, including California, Nebraska, Michigan, and Florida.
In its 19-year quest, Ulysses space craft passed Jupiter as a part of its repositioning.
Ulysses returned data that changed the way scientists viewed the Sun, our very own star, and its effects on the solar system. Ulysses made the first direct measurements of interstellar dust particles and interstellar helium atoms in the solar system. Surprisingly, it discovered that the magnetic field leaving the sun is balanced across latitudes.
Although its primary mission was to observe the sun, Ulysses returned information regarding comets, having coincidentally passed through the tails of three during its solar orbit. Edward J. Smith of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the U.S. project scientist for the Ulysses mission tells us: "Ulysses has flown through and acquired data from the tails of comets …" No other spacecraft in history has done that."
The Ulysses team had expected Ulysses to stop functioning much sooner, and everyone involved from construction to operations were credited with its unexpected longevity. Paolo Ferri, Head of the Solar & Planetary Missions Division at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany said: "Although it is always hard to take the decision to terminate a mission, we have to accept that the satellite is running out of resources and a controlled switch-off is the best ending."
The Ulysses Mission Team were recognized by NASA during the 2009 NASA Honors Award ceremony June 9 held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Closing up shop on the space craft will be done from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by a team led by Nigel Angold, ESA Mission Operations Manager, and Ed Massey, NASA Project Manager.
Although silent forever after tomorrow, Ulysses will be married to the Sun as its orbit continues far into the future.
Editor’s note: This is the first part of our three-part tribute to Ulysses. Part II and Part III are also available now, if you click on their respective links: