This is what names mean in space exploration

This article is about the names of space flight programs. What sounds boring at first glance is quite exciting when you take a closer look. Names in space flight are never given just like that, but follow certain principles. Which ones, we try to find out in this article. At the end of this article we will summarize the practical use of the knowledge about the naming of programs. But in the first step, let's take a look at some well-known and sometimes also unknown programs in chronological order.

14Cosmic VisionEU2005heute

Sputnik (Спутник) - the companion

Sputnik has been the first artificial satellite orbiting the Earth. Sputnik is Russian and translates as companion. This is obvious because the small satellite with a diameter of 58 centimeters and a mass of 83.6 kg orbited the Earth and thus accompanied it. On October 04, 1957 it was put into orbit by the Russians, at that time still the USSR. It did not stay there for a long time, because it orbited the Earth in a relatively low orbit (elliptical orbit with a distance of 215 km to 939 km). After about three months, Sputnik re-entered the atmosphere and burned up. Nevertheless, the mission was a success. Because it managed to prove that it is possible to launch satellites into space. This in turn triggered the so-called "Sputnik shock" in the United States. 

Flagge der UdSSR
StartOct 4, 1957
EndJan 4, 1958
Duration92 days

Der Sputnik-Schock

The "Sputnik shock" is the term used to describe the reaction of the U.S. public and media to the launch of Sputnik in the USSR. After all, anyone who is capable of launching a rocket into space and a satellite into orbit is also capable of launching a rocket to any point on Earth. In the days of the Cold War, this naturally caused fear, because it was not a matter of a small metal ball orbiting the earth and landing on American soil again, but rather the threat of nuclear first strikes in the worst case. Therefore, the Americans were simply afraid that the Russians could now shoot missiles at them without being able to do anything about it. 


Vanguard - the pioneers

The Americans' fear was also partly based on failures of their own programs. One such was Vanguard, which was launched as an underpinning to the 1955 announcement of putting their own satellites into space. Vanguard ran from 1957 to 1959.

The program was implemented by the Naval Research Laboratory, a civilian research facility of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps. The civilian nature of space flight was to be emphasized, and President Eisenhower wanted to use it to support his "open skies" proposal. Indeed, at the first U.S.-Soviet summit since the 1955 Potsdam Conference in Geneva, the President had proposed to the Russians that they grant each other overflight rights over their own territory as a sign of rapprochement. This was clearly rejected by the Soviet Union. Vanguard was therefore also a provocation to the Soviet Union.

Flagge der USA
StartDec 6, 1957
EndSep 18, 1959 
Duration22 months

240 years in space

To catch up with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, an American satellite was to be launched into space on December 6, 1957. However, this and another launch failed. On the third attempt, on March 17, 1958, Vanguard I became the first American satellite to reach space. It was the size of a grapefruit, weighed about 1.5 kg and was the first to be powered by solar cells. It is still orbiting the Earth today and will enter the Earth's atmosphere around the year 2198 and then burn up.

Image: © NASA; Vanguard TV-3 (identical in construction to Vanguard 1), on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C., USA)

Vanguard TV-3 (baugleich mit Vanguard 1), ausgestellt im Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C., USA)

Explorer - the knowledge seekers

While Vanguard was still running, the Americans launched another space program called "Explorer" in 1958. The name of the program was inspired by great names such as Christopher Columbus (* around 1451, † May 20, 1506; considered the modern discoverer of America) or Fernando Magellan (* before 1485, † April 27, 1521; the first to circumnavigate the earth). After the Vanguard disaster, Explorer 1 was the third satellite in space and the first American "spacecraft" to actually make it into space. The program was started by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency as a competition program to Vanguard. In the program, which continues to this day - under NASA's name - 105 satellites have been launched so far, the last one on October 11, 2019. Another launch is planned for the 4th quarter of 2021, with six satellites scheduled for launch in 2023 and another in 2024/25.

Flagge der USA
StartFeb 1, 1958
Enduntil today
Duration63+ years
Künstlerische Darstellung des Satelliten Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), der als bisher letzter im Explorer-Programm gestartet wurde
Artist's rendering of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite, the last to be launched in the Explorer program to date. © By NASA Goddard’s Conceptual Image Lab/B. Monroe, Public Domain

Venera (Венера) - Venus

After the success of Sputnik, the Russians launched the Venera space program, which translates as "Venus," just a few years later. This clarifies what this program was about: sending probes to Venus, Earth's inner neighboring planet. The program ran from 1961 to 1983 and within these 22 years several probes were sent to Venus. The Russians approached the surface probe by probe, but only Venera 7 succeeded in landing on December 15, 1970.

This made it the first probe ever to land on an extraterrestrial planet. Venera 7 was able to withstand the conditions on Venus (92 bar pressure, average surface temperature of 464 °C / 867 °F) for probably 23 minutes. For that time at least, a weak signal reached Earth, after which it fell silent. Venera 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14 also landed on Venus and provided images and measurement data from the surface. Incidentally, France, Austria and the GDR, among others, were involved in building the instruments for individual missions.

Flagge der UdSSR
StartFeb 12, 1961
EndJun 7, 1983
Duration22 years, 4 months
Modell der Sonde Venera 10
Venera 10 model; © Bekhruzbek OchilovOwn Work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Vostok (Восток) - the East

Also in 1961, the Russians launched the "Vostok" program. This translates as "East" and was intended to demonstrate the USSR's supremacy in the space race. Vostok was primarily used to refer to spacecraft, but also to the rockets used for the launches. What makes Vostok special is that it was the USSR's first manned space program. After the Soviet Union had already reached a milestone in space flight with Sputnik, another one was to follow with Vostok.

In several test flights, among others, dogs were successfully brought into space and back to earth. Vostok 1 then had the first ever human being on board: Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin (* March 9, 1934, † March 27, 1968). He orbited the Earth once in 108 minutes on April 12, 1961, and then landed safely in the Volga region. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova (* March 6, 1937) flew into space with Vostok 6. And that, too, is a record: not only was she the first woman to do so, but to this day she is the only one to have done so alone - without any other crew members.

Flagge der UdSSR
Duration2 years

Voskhod (Восход) - the sunrise

The follow-up program to Vostok was called Voskhod - translated as "sunrise" - and ran from 1964 to 1966. The new designation was intended to fool the West (above all the United States) into believing that a completely new system was being used. As we know today, however, this was not the case. Rather, the technology used on Vostok was modified and continued to be used. One of the most serious changes was that the ejection seats were removed to allow space for a total of three astronauts. Despite the modifications, there was very limited space in the capsule, so the cosmonauts had to fly without the usual pressure suits. This was a daring maneuver, but it succeeded. Russian propaganda portrayed it as a sign of the safety of Russian space systems.

Flagge der UdSSR
StartOct 6, 1964
EndFeb 22, 1966
Duration~ 17 months
technische Zeichnungen zur Darstellung der Konfiguration von Wostok sowie Woschod im Vergleich
Configuration of Vostok as well as Voskhod in comparison

Mercury - the gods messengers

Abraham "Abe" Silverstein (* September 15, 1908, † June 1, 2001), who worked at NASA for many years as manager and director of space development, suggested the name Mecury for the first manned space program of the USA. He was referring to Roman mythology, in which Mercury is the messenger of the gods (in Greek, it is Hermes). The program ran from 1958 to 1963 and on May 5, 1961, only about four weeks after Yuri Gagarin, launched Alan B. Shepard as the first American into space.

Unlike Gagarin, however, he did not orbit the Earth, but flew in a ballistic orbit to an altitude of 187 km - and thus, by definition, into space - but landed back on Earth just 15 minutes and 22 seconds later. The first official astronauts of the USA, who were introduced to the public as "Mercury Seven", achieved special fame. In addition to Shepard, they were Virgil I. Grissom, John H. Glenn, Malcom Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr, Donald K. Slayton and Leroy Gordon Cooper. The program was terminated early because of its successes, and the successor Gemini program was fast-tracked. This was to keep the promise made by John F. Kennedy to achieve a lunar landing within the 1960s.

Flagge der USA
EndJun 12, 1963
Duration5 years, 9 months
Foto der Mercury Seven mit dem Modell einer Rakete, unterschrieben von allen Mitgliedern
The "Mercury Seven"

Alan Shepard and Sally Ride - National Heroes of the United States

The importance of the Mercury program in the collective memory of the U.S. is reflected, among other things, in the hero status of Alan Shepard. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA), for example, there is a gold-plated statue commemorating his first space flight. In addition, Blue Origin's suborbital rocket was christened "New Shepard." And the planned flight time of around eleven minutes also shows parallels to the Americans' first manned space flight.

Far less well known, by the way, were the "Mercury 13." This was the name given to a group of female pilots who had passed the same medical tests as their male colleagues in the 1960s. Although this selection procedure was not an official part of NASA's selection process, it was intended to pave the way for women to also gain access to space. The first U.S. woman in space was Sally Ride (b. May 26, 1951, † July 23, 2012), but she did not launch until June 18, 1983, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-7).

Gemini – the twins

After the Mercury program was successfully terminated ahead of schedule, the Gemini successor program was launched ahead of schedule. In Latin, Gemini stands for the constellation Gemini, whose two most conspicuous stars are named Pollux (brightest star of the constellation) and Castor (second brightest star of the constellation). In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux are inseparable twin brothers and sons of Zeus.

NASA asked for names to be proposed for this "bridge program" between Mercury and Apollo. Among all the submissions, Gemini was represented twice. Whether by chance or not, the number two also has a special significance with regard to the goal of this program. The core objective of the Gemini program was to put several people into space at the same time. In addition, techniques were to be tested that were indispensable for the moon landing planned as part of the Apollo program: Among other things, coupling maneuvers of two spacecraft or moving in free space.

Flagge der USA
StartDec 7, 1961
EndFeb 1, 1967
Duration5 years, 3 months

From Gemini to Apollo

During the Gemini program, a total of ten space flights took place and the astronauts included many whose names have gone down in the history of astronautical space flight. For example, John Young (Gemini 3), who later landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 16 and was the first to command a space shuttle. But also James A. Lovell (Gemini 7), who was commander of Apollo 13 in 1970; Neil Armstrong (Gemini 8), commander of Apollo 11 and first man on the moon; Eugene Cernan (Gemini 9), with Apollo 17 the last man on the moon until now; Michael Collins (Gemini 10), who orbited the moon as a pilot on Apollo 11 but did not land; and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (Gemini 12), who was the second man to walk on the moon on Apollo 11, completed space flights as part of the Gemini program.

Apollo - the guide and shooter

On May 25, 1961, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, gave a speech to the U.S. Congress that is considered the starting point for what is probably the most famous space program in human history: Apollo.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

John F. Kennedy, excerpt from speech to the U.S. Congress, May 25, 1961
Flagge der USA
StartMay 25, 1961
EndJul 24, 1975
Duration14 years

The name "Apollo" was once again suggested by Abe Silverstein, who was already responsible for "Mercury". It is derived from the Greek god Apollo, who in Roman and Greek mythology is considered the god of light, healing, spring, moral purity, divination and the arts. Apollo is of particular historical significance, as this program is the only one to date that has taken humans to an extraterrestrial celestial body. The core program ran from 1961 (first launch of an unmanned Saturn I rocket on October 27, 1961) to 1972 (landing of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972), but continued with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) until 1975. Of the total 35 missions of this program, 32 were successful, two failed completely, and one failed at least partially.

Apollo 11 - the mission of success

Probably the most famous mission of this program is Apollo 11. After a successful launch of the Saturn V from the ramp LC-39A (Launch Complex) in Cape Canaveral (at that time Cape Kennedy Air Force Station) on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969 in the Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility). While pilot Michael Collins (* October 31, 1930) orbited the moon, first Neil Armstrong (* August 5, 1930, † August 25, 2012) and then Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (* January 20, 1930) set their feet on the moon.

Apollo 13 - the successful failure

Another well-known mission is Apollo 13, which is considered the most successful failure in the history of astronautical space flight. After an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the moon around April 14, 1970 (about 56 hours after launch on April 11), a landing was no longer possible. Thus, after this incident, the mission's main objective was to bring the three astronauts Jim Lovell (* March 25, 1928), Jack Swigert (* August 30, 1930, † December 27, 1982) and Fred Haise (* November 14, 1933) safely back to Earth.

Swigert's message to the control center, "Housten, we've had a problem here," has gone down in history and become a common phrase. With a lot of improvisational talent and orbit corrections, the spaceship was brought back to Earth. To do so, Apollo 13 performed a swing-by maneuver around the moon, which earned Lovell, Swigert and Haise a record that still stands today: at 401,056 km, they are the three people who have traveled the farthest from Earth to date. A phrase also often quoted and attributed to Apollo 13 is "Failure is not an option." Although it originated in a statement by then NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, he uttered it during an interview for the film Apollo 13 (1995).

Apollo 1 - the disaster

A tragic mission is Apollo 1, whose designation was introduced only afterwards. During a routine exercise on January 27, 1967, fire broke out on board the Apollo spacecraft due to a technical error. Because the pressure inside was too high and the hatch of the capsule had to be opened inward, the astronauts could not leave it. In addition, the fire deprived them of oxygen, so that Roger Chafee (* February 15, 1935, † January 27, 1967), Edward White (* November 14, 1930, † January 27, 1967) and Virgil Grissom (* April 3, 1926, † January 27, 1967) presumably suffocated within 30 seconds and burned beyond recognition. As a result of the accident, the design of the space capsule was revised and astronautical space flights were not undertaken again until Apollo 7 (1968). 

Luna (Луна) – the Moon

The Luna program was launched by the USSR in 1958. Here, too, the name literally says it all: Luna means moon and the exploration of our natural satellite was also the main goal. Originally, Luna ran until 1976, but it is to be restarted in a further phase from 2021 to 2027. ESA will then also be involved in the restart. A total of 44 missions can be attributed to the program so far, 15 of which were successful. However, due to the fact that the program ran during the Cold War and therefore not all data was published, there are also deviating data. According to other sources, there were only 39 missions, of which 22 were failures, four were partial successes and 13 were successes.

The first missions of this program were not very promising: Some rockets exploded during launch (Luna E-1 No. 1), some probes could not leave the orbit (Luna E-6 No. 2 / Sputnik 25) or missed the moon either narrowly (Luna 1, 5,900 km) or enormously (Luna 6, 166,000 km).

However, it is undisputed that the first successful soft landing on the moon occurred on February 3, 1966. The probe Luna 9 collected data for three days and also sent an image of the surface back to Earth. Its successor was Luna 13, which also successfully touched down on the surface on December 24, 1966. Luna 10, 11, 12 and 14, on the other hand, were orbiters that were only supposed to orbit the moon.

Flagge der UdSSR
Flagge der EU
Sep 23, 1958
Aug 22, 1976
18 years
6 Jahre*
* geplant

Luna mission objectives

  • Impactor (controlled impact)
  • Fly by
  • Soft Lander
  • Orbiter
  • Rover
  • Sample return

Lunochod - the moonwalker

Even though the Americans won the race to land on the moon with Apollo 11, the Russians achieved milestones. For they successfully sent a rover to the moon for the first time with Luna 17. The rover was named Lunochod, which translates as moon walker. The first attempt (Luna E-8 No. 201) in February 1969 failed, but on November 17, 1970, Lunochod 1 (Luna 17) landed safely on the lunar surface. It was the first rover to ride on an extraterrestrial celestial body. It was followed by Luna 23, Lunochod 2, on January 15, 1973.

Apollo and Luna - conspiracy theory about a faked moon landing

Another goal of the Luna program was to bring lunar rocks to Earth (sample return). This, too, did not succeed on the first attempt. The Luna E-8-5 No. 402 mission failed to reach orbit, and Luna 15 hit the lunar surface hard on July 21, 1969 - the same time that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on and walked on the moon with Apollo 11. A first successful retrieval mission then succeeded Luna 16, followed by Luna 20 and 24. In this way, the Russians brought a total of 326 g of lunar rock to Earth. This is minuscule compared to the 382 kg brought back by the Apollo missions. Nevertheless, it was important.

Because moon rocks can also be seen as proof that the Americans did not fake or falsify the moon landing - as conspiracy theorists keep claiming to this day. For the two superpowers USA and USSR, which faced each other in the Cold War, it would have been easy to expose the other. So already alone the official silence of the Russians could be seen as proof that the Americans were on the moon. Of course, there are many more points that can be used to prove manned moon landings.

Restart of the Luna program 2021

A restart of the Luna program is planned for 2021. Roskosmos and ESA plan to jointly carry out a total of three missions by 2027: Luna 25 (launch no earlier than 2021), Luna 26 and Luna 27. In this context, Luna 25 will be a kind of advance command that is to land on the moon and gain important knowledge for subsequent missions. Two years later, Luna 26 will launch, perform remote measurements and remain in lunar orbit as a communications relay. Luna 27 will launch another year later, land in the south pole region of the moon and search for (frozen) water there using a drill.

Visualisierung der Sonde Luna 27
Computer model of Luna 27;
© Roskosmos; © ESA

Zond (Зонд) - the probe

The contents of the Zond program do not seem to follow any particular logic at first glance. Translated, Zond means probe, from which only limited deductions can be made. All in all, the program is considered to be very heterogeneous, since many missions were carried out under this name. Primarily, several probes of the same type were to be launched on different celestial bodies. But at least since the end of the Cold War it is known that Zond was also a program to cover up Russian efforts of a manned moon landing. Since this race was won by the Americans with the landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, Zond was discontinued in 1970 at the latest.

Flagge der UdSSR
Start*Nov 11, 1963
Ende*Oct 20, 1970
Duration7 years
* jeweils erster und letzter Start einer Sonde aus dem Zond-Programm

Successes and failures

The program is also considered a "reservoir of failed missions." For example, Zond 1 was sent on a journey to Venus on April 2, 1964, to drop a landing capsule that was supposed to hit the surface hard. However, due to a technical error, it flew past Venus on July 19, 1964, at a distance of 110,000 km.

Zond 2 was launched on November 30, 1964, and was supposed to fly past Mars, taking measurements and photographs. However, because a solar panel failed to deploy, the probe ran out of power, broke contact with Earth, and passed Mars on August 6, 1965, at a distance of only 1,500 km, without ever sending a signal again.

Zond 3 was also planned as a Mars probe. However, since the launch window was missed, the Russians changed their plans without further ado and sent it on its journey to the moon on July 18, 1965. It flew past it at a distance of only 9,200 km, tested a camera system and conducted experiments. After its flyby, it continued to send signals from interplanetary space (153.3 million km from Earth).

The Zond 4 to 8 probes were unmanned and returned to Earth after orbiting the Moon. Various approach and landing maneuvers were successfully tested.

Viking - the Vikings

Named after the Vikings who sailed to America well before Columbus, the Americans launched the Viking program in 1975. The goal of the two missions was to launch two probes on our outer neighboring planet. To accomplish this, two Titan 3E/Centaur rockets launched in quick succession from launch pad LC-41 at Cape Canaveral: Viking 1 on August 20, Viking 2 on September 9, 1975. According to the launch sequence, the two probes also reached Mars. The Viking 1 lander landed on July 20, 1976; Viking 2 touched down on the Red Planet on September 3, 1976.

The Viking probes were the first to provide detailed images of the Martian surface. In the immediate vicinity of Viking 2's landing site, Utopia Planitia (from the Greek for nowhere), the Chinese Mars probe Tianwen-1 is also scheduled to land at the end of May / beginning of June 2021 to investigate the water ice deposits found there in more detail. The Perseverance rover of NASA's Mars2020 mission already landed in the nearby Jerzero crater on February 18, 2021.

Flagge der USA
StartDec 4, 1968
EndNov 13, 1982
Duration~ 14 years

Contact with the probes was maintained for many years after their landing. Contact with the orbiter of Viking 1 was maintained until August 17, 1980, and with the lander until November 13, 1982. Contact with the orbiter of Viking 2 was maintained until July 25, 1978, and with the lander until April 11, 1980. The orbiters transmitted a total of 56,000 images (Viking 1: 37,000, Viking 2: 19,000) of Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos; the landers each sent about 2,300 images of the surface to Earth.

Voyager - the travelers

Voyager means "traveler" or "sailor". The first ideas for this program were already being considered in the 1960s. It was based on calculations by the U.S. mathematician Michael Minovitch of JPL (Jet Propulsion Labority). He had demonstrated that spacecraft could gain further speed through so-called swing-by maneuvers. This was extremely important for the program's goal of sending probes to the outer planets of our solar system. This was because the necessary planetary constellations occurred between 1976 and 1978, and not again until 2152.

NASA did not want to miss this opportunity and launched the Voyager program in July 1972. Voyager 1 set off on its journey from Cape Canaveral on September 5, 1977, and its sister probe Voyager 2 on August 20, 1977. Originally, four to five probes were to be launched, but due to the high budget involved, only two were to be built. Also the life span of the probes should be limited to four years, in order to save costs. However, the engineers secretly ignored this and used many of the already developed systems in the two probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

Flagge der USA
StartJul 1, 1972 
2025 / 2030's*
Duration49+ years
* geplant

Travelling in interstellar space

Zeitstrahl der Voyager-Missionen und deren Position im Weltraum
Voyager Mission-Timeline, © NASA JPL

This approach turned out to be a stroke of luck in the history of space flight. For, as NASA reports on its website, contact with the probes can be maintained to this day - thanks to improved technology. This is special in that they have now left our solar system. In August 2012, Voyager 1 and in November 2018, Voyager 2 entered interstellar space. This makes them the furthest man-made objects from Earth in existence.

On board the two probes are also the so-called Voyager Golden Records (VGR): copper records covered with gold. On it are stored beside the position information of the earth also greeting messages in 55 languages, music as well as nature and animal noises. The VGRs are intended as a message to extraterrestrials who may eventually discover the probes. How probable that is and whether that was a good idea, however, is another matter.

Cosmic Vision – die Visionären

Das aktuelle Raumfahrtprogramm der Europäischen Raumfahrtagentur ESA heißt Cosmic Vision 2015 – 2025. Der Name ist mit “Kosmischer Vision” nur bedingt gut zu übersetzen, letzten Endes geht es jedoch darum: Visionen. So stehen im Mittelpunkt des Programms auch vier Fragen, auf die langfristig Antworten gefunden werden sollen.

  1. Was sind die Bedingungen für die Planetenbildung und die Entstehung von Leben?
  2. Wie funktioniert das Sonnensystem?
  3. Welches sind die grundlegenden physikalischen Gesetze des Universums?
  4. Wie ist das Universum entstanden und woraus besteht es?

Cosmic Vision startete bereits 2005 und beinhaltet mehrere kleine Missionen, die eben erwähnte Fragen beantworten helfen sollen. Die Missionen innerhalb des Programms werden nach klein (S-Mission), mittel (M-Mission), groß (L-Mission) und schnell (F-Mission) gestaffelt.

Flagge der EU
Duration16+ Jahre

Comet Interceptor – der Abfangjäger für Kometen

Insgesamt zehn Missionen wurden nach Vorlage zur Realisierung ausgewählt, wovon besonders die F-Mission “Comet Interceptor” hervorsticht. Die geplante dreistufige Sonde soll 2029 starten und auf Abruf einen Kometen oder ein interstellares Objekt untersuchen. Besonders interessant ist diese Mission, da ihr Ansatz ein um 180° gedrehtes Vorgehen ist. Denn bisher wurde nach der Entdeckung eines interessantes Objektes die Technik gebaut und anschließend auf die Reise dahin geschickt. Nun aber soll erst die Technik gebaut, ins All gebracht und am Lagrange Punkt L2 (in rund 1,5 Millionen km Entfernung von der Erde) geparkt werden, wo die Raumsonde dann mehr oder minder “auf der Lauer liegt”, bis sie auf die Reise geschickt wird.

Tianwen (天问一号) – die Himmelsfragen

Tianwen ist ein Programm der chinesischen Raumfahrtagentur CNSA. Der Name geht auf den chinesischen Schriftsteller Qu Yuan zurück, der 340–278 v. Chr. gelebt hat. In einem Gedichtband stellte er die Astronomie seiner Zeit in Frage. Unter anderem, warum die Himmelsekliptik in 12 Abschnitte aufgeteilt ist. Antworten hat er jedoch nicht geliefert; das soll jetzt das Raumfahrtprogramm nachholen.

Dass zwischen dem Start des Programms im März 2007 bis zum erfolgreichen Start von Tianwen-1 am 23. Juli 2020 insgesamt 13 Jahre liegen, begründet sich im ersten Fehlschlag. Denn zunächst war vorgesehen, in Zusammenarbeit mit Roskosmos eine Sonde (Mars-1 (ursprünglich Yinghuo-1, dt. Glühwürmchen)) “Huckepack” auf der Phobos-Grunt-Mission zum Mars zu bringen. Aufgrund eines technischen Fehlers konnte die Sonde jedoch nicht in die Flugbahn zum Mars eingeschossen werden und verblieb in einer niedrigen Umlaufbahn – dem Parkorbit – um die Erde. Ohne die Möglichkeit, die Flugbahn von der Erde aus zu beeinflussen, näherte sich die Sonde immer weiter der Oberfläche an und trat letztlich in die Atmosphäre ein. Am 15. Januar 2012 verglühte Phobos-Grunt gemeinsam mit Yinghuo-1 über dem Ostpazifik.

Flagge der VR China
VR China
Enduntil today
Duration14+ Jahre

Die CNSA (China National Space Administration) beschloss daraufhin, ein eigenes Programm zu starten. Schließlich startete Tianwen-1 am 23. Juli 2020 mit einer Rakete des Typs Langer Marsch 5 in Richtung Mars und erreichte diesen am 10. Februar 2021. Für Mai 2021 ist dann eine Landung geplant, bei der ein Rover in der Größe eines Golfcaddys auf der Oberfläche abgesetzt wird. Dieser soll unter anderem nach vorhandenen Erzen suchen. Der Orbiter verbleibt in der Umlaufbahn und wird als Relaisstation zur Kommunikation genutzt.  

Tiangong (天宫) – der Himmelspalast

Tiangong ist ein astronautisches Raumfahrtprogramm der VR China, das hierzulande jedoch relativ unbekannt sein dürfte. Der Name Tiangong bedeutet „Himmelspalast“, womit chinesische Raumstationen bezeichnet wurden. Erste Planungen für das Programm gab es bereits 1992, seit 1993 läuft es und es wurde auf der Expo 2000 in Hannover erstmals der Öffentlichkeit vorgestellt.

Tjangong 1 startete am 29. September 2011 in einen Erdorbit. Der Kontakt zur Raumstation ging allerdings am 2. April 2018 unerwartet verloren. Daraufhin kam zu einem ungeplanten Eintritt in die Erdatmosphäre und dem Absturz im Südpazifik. Tiangong 2 startete am 15. September 2016 und wurde am 19. Juli 2019 kontrolliert zum Absturz gebracht. Bei beiden Abstürzen waren die Raumstationen unbemannt. Die mit Tiangong 1 und 2 gemachten Erfahrungen sollen in die modulare chinesische Raumstation einfließen, welche ab Frühjahr 2021 aufgebaut werden soll. Die Fertigstellung ist für Ende 2022 geplant.

Flagge der VR China
VR China
Enduntil today
Duration28+ Jahre

Eine Station, 152.640 Namen

Der Benennung der Raumstation ging eine große PR-Aktion voraus. So wurden alle rund 1,4 Milliarden Chines:innen im April 2011 aufgefordert, Namensvorschläge einzureichen. Aus den 152.640 Vorschlägen wurden 30 in die nächste Runde gewählt, über die dann rund 20 Millionen Chines:innen online über die Top 10 abstimmten. Anschließend wählte eine Kommission daraus den finalen Namen aus, der vom chinesischen Staatsrat genehmigt und am 31. Oktober 2013 vom Büro für bemannte Raumfahrt bekannt gegeben wurde. Lange hielt sich der Name “Himmelspalast” jedoch nicht, denn seit 2018 wird er nicht mehr für die gesamte Raumstation verwendet. Stattdessen lautet die offizielle Bezeichnung seither “modulare Raumstation”. Die einzelnen Module hingegen werden weiterhin beschreibend bezeichnet.

  • Kernmodul: Tianhe – Himmlische Harmonie
  • Wissenschaftsmodul: Wentian – Himmelsbefragung
  • Weltraumteleskop: Xuntian – Himmelsdurchmusterung
  • Transportraumschiff: Tianzhou – Himmelsschiff

Artemis – die Zwillingsschwester

2019 startete die NASA das nach Apollo zweite Raumfahrtprogramm, das Menschen zum Mond bringen soll. Der Name Artemis lässt sich von Apollo ableiten, denn in der griechischen Mythologie ist Artemis die Zwillingsschwester von Apollon.

Geplant war die Landung des “nächsten Mannes und der ersten Frau” (Wortlaut NASA) auf dem Mond für das Jahr 2024. Dass dieser Termin gehalten werden kann, scheint aktuell unwahrscheinlich. Grund hierfür sind unter anderem Verzögerungen bei der Konstruktion der für die Reise geplanten Rakete Space Launch System (SLS). Aber auch das zur Verfügung stehende Budget reicht laut NASA nicht aus, um den ambitionierten Zeitplan einzuhalten. Ein großer Schritt, um den nächsten riesigen Sprung zu machen, war hingegen der erfolgreiche Test der vier RS-25-Triebwerke des SLS in einem so genannten Green Run Hot Fire Test am 18. März 2021.

Flagge der USA
Enduntil today
Duration2+ Jahre

Ein Programm mit neuen Rekorden

Missionsprofil der NASA-Mission Artemis II
geplanter Ablauf der Mission Artemis II

Im Rahmen der Mission Artemis II soll auch ein von Apollo 13 aufgestellter Rekord gebrochen werden. Denn bei diesem bemannten Flug soll die Crew zwar nicht auf dem Mond landen, ihn aber umrunden. Aufgrund der Flugbahn wären die Besatzungsmitglieder dann die am weitesten von der Erde entfernten Menschen überhaupt. Geplant ist der Start (ursprünglich) für August 2023. Danach soll dann Artemis III wieder Menschen auf die Oberfläche des Mondes bringen.

Ausbeutung von Weltraumressourcen erlaubt – Dank Artemis Accords

Mit den Artemis Accords schloss die NASA einen Vertrag mit den Teilnehmerstaaten der Mission, welcher auf dem Weltraumvertrag aufbauen soll. Laut dieses Vertrages soll es Unternehmen gestattet sein, Weltraumressourcen auszubeuten – was der Weltraumvertrag eigentlich verbietet und Kritik auslöste. Zu den Unterzeichnern des Vertrags gehören neben den USA Australien, Großbritannien, Italien, Japan, Kanada, Luxemburg und die Vereinigten Arabischen Emirate.

Chandrayaan (च्हन्द्रयान) – das Mondfahrzeug

Chandrayaan, was sich als Mondfahrzeug übersetzen lässt, ist ein indisches Raumfahrtprogramm, in dessen Zentrum die Erkundung des Mondes steht. Im Ausland ist es auch unter dem Namen Indian Lunar Exploration Programme bekannt. Eine erste Mission startete 22. Oktober 2008 und brachte eine Sonde zum Mond, die ihn zwei Jahre lang umkreisen sollte. Der Kontakt brach allerdings nach 312 Tagen und mehr als 3.400 Umrundungen ab. Im Jahr 2017 gab die NASA bekannt, dass sie durch die Kooperation mehrerer Radioteleskope die Sonde wieder gefunden hat und diese sich in einem Mondorbit befindet.

Am 22. Juli 2019 startete Chandrayaan 2, deren Missionsziel die weiche Landung eines Landers auf der Oberfläche war. Allerdings schlug dieses Vorhaben fehl und der Lander wurde bei der Landung zerstört. Der Orbiter umkreist hingegen – wie Chandrayaan 1 – weiterhin den Mond. Aktuell konzentriert sich die ISRO jedoch auf das – durch die Corona-Pandemie zusätzlich verschobene – Indian Human Spaceflight Programme, das 2022/23 erstmals Inder:innen mit eigens entwickelter Technik ins All bringen soll.

Flagge Indiens
Enduntil today
Duration13+ Jahre

Was Namen in der Raumfahrt bedeuten – eine Erkenntnis

Die vorgestellten Namen sind natürlich nur ein Bruchteil der Raumfahrt. Neben Programmen werden auch Missionen, Technik, Raumfahrzeuge, Raketen, Weltraumteleskope und so weiter mit Namen versehen. Das gilt für staatliche Raumfahrtprogramme ebenso, wie für die von Privatunternehmen wir SpaceX, Blue Origin oder Virgin Galactic. Was sich anhand der Beispiele jedoch erkennen lässt: Namen werden nicht per Zufall vergeben. Manche mögen seltsam, antiquiert oder auch zu bedeutungsschwanger wirken. Doch mit der Namensgebung soll in nahezu allen Fällen auch eine Botschaft transportiert werden. Zum Beispiel, um einen Anspruch gegenüber anderen klar zu machen. Zudem kann man oftmals anhand des Namens ablesen, welches Ziel mit einem Programm verfolgt werden soll. So lassen sich mit ein wenig detektivischem Geschick auch Rückschlüsse bei Programmen ziehen, die einem bislang unbekannt sind.

Header Image Credit: Free Footage
Written by M. Weissflog
Read 887 times so far

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