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Spacecraft Modelmaking: Galileo

The Galileo spacecraft was launched on 18th October 1989 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis and, after a six year journey, arrived at Jupiter in December of 1995 to begin its orbital tour of the planet and its moons.

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Galileo spent over 14 years in service at Jupiter, providing us with high resolution data about the planet. Via a detachable probe that descended into Jupiter’s atmosphere, the planet’s composition was directly measured for the first time. The structure of Jupiter’s magnetosphere was also mapped.

Galileo discovered that Jupiter’s faint ring system consists of dust from impacts on the four Jovian moons. Volcanism on Io was imaged, as well as its interaction with Jupiter’s atmosphere. The theory of a liquid subsurface ocean under the ice world of Europa was further bolstered by data collected by Galileo and similar indicators were found to suggest the same occuring under the surface of Ganymede and Callisto.

In 1994, Galileo also observed the collision of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9.

On 21st September 2003, Galileo’s mission was terminated by sending the space craft into Jupiter’s atmosphere at a speed of 50 km/s. This decision was made so that there was no chance of Galileo crashing and contaminating any of Jupiter’s moons.


This model of Galileo was scratch built using modelling plastic styrene sheets and rods, from plans originally designed for paper models but modified for use with plastics. The high gain antenna on the real spacecraft never fully opened but on the model it is shown open to give the impression of it fully functional.galileoIMG_1015galileoIMG_1014galileoIMG_1013

It is a 1/45th scale model and is 150mm long (the real spacecraft weighing about 5000 lbs and being about the size of a small car).

The model, built by Terry Regan, has been composited here (by Paul Kemp) with a NASA/JPL imagery of Jupiter.

Terry Regan is the Chief Spacecraft Model Builder for the Institute of Interstellar Studies, and is currently building a model of the Daedalus spacecraft for the British Interplanetary Society.


Spacecraft Modelmaking: Voyager

Following on from his models of the Magellan, Cassini-Huygens and Galileo spacecraft, Terry Regan went on a grand tour of the Solar System and guides us through his scratchbuilt scale model of the famous Voyager spacecraft.

Voyager 1 & 2 – The Grand Tour


The planetary grand tour was an ambitious plan to send  two unmanned  probes to the outer planets of the Solar System. The idea was conceived at NASA & JPL in the 1960s when it found that all four gas giant planets could be visited using gravity assists while needing a minimal amount of propellant and a shorter travel time between planets.

The original proposed mission was to send four probes under the Mariner programme:  the first two, with proposed launch dates in 1976 and 1977 were to fly by Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto and the other two with launch dates in 1979 were to fly by Jupiter , Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft were to have been designed with multiple redundant system onboard to ensure they would last over the missions spanning up to 12 years.

Image: Paul Kemp/NASA/JPL

Due to NASA budget cuts in 1972, the grand tour missions were downsized to two “mini Grand Tour” probes and the Voyager programme was born.

The two Voyagers were launched in 1977 on board Titan 111E/Centaur rocket s – Voyager 2 on 20th August 1977 and Voyager 1 on 5th September  1977 on a faster trajectory which enabled it to reach Jupiter and Saturn sooner but at a cost of not visiting the outer planets. Although Pluto was possible destination in its trajectory, while examining Saturn it was decided to make a close flyby of Titan  which would remove the chance for the Pluto flyby.

On 17th February 1998, Voyager 1 overtook Pioneer 10 to become the most distance man-made object from Earth – at the time it was 6.5 Billion miles from Earth. Pioneer 10 and Voyager 1 are heading almost in the opposite direction outward from the Solar System.  One 18thDecember 2004, Voyager 1  passed the “termination shock” – the point where the solar winds slow to subsonic speeds and the tenuous point where the solar system can be said to end.  Now in 2012, Voyager 1 is 10 billion miles from Earth travelling at about 38,200mph and it takes over 33 hours to transmit and receive radio signals.

Image: Paul Kemp/NASA/JPL

Image: Paul Kemp/NASA/JPL

Voyager 2 is currently 9.1 billion miles from Earth and is travelling at about 35,000 mph, taking over 27 hours to transmit and receive radio signals.

Each Voyager probe carries a Golden Record – a gold-plated copper phonograph disc containing sounds and images selected to portray the Earth and its inhabitants. They were intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms, or even for future humans life, who may find them.

Both are still sending back information and are expected carry on until 2025 when their power runs out (or when they can no longer be monitored) –  what an amazing pair of spacecraft!


This is the fourth spacecraft model to be made in my collection and as with the last three all have been scratchbuilt from plans available online and using plans from a card model.

I first started to build the main body using styrene plasticard, the material that professional model makers use . A ten sided body,  12mm high and 55mm in diameter,  was made and glued, and then shaped and cleaned up to form the main body. I added detail around the sides to represent the four thermal control louvres, and also not forgetting the famous gold record.  I then added three V-shaped struts that supports the antenna dish, and another four to support the rocket engine to give which powered the probe’s thrust. The struts was made from plastic rod and the whole thing was then sprayed black, with the louvres sprayed in chrome silver .

Next I made the R.T.G or Radioisotope Thermo Generator. 6mm diameter plastic rod was cut to a length of 50mm and formed into cooling fins. The RTG was sprayed a metallic black and the support structure chrome silver and then attached to the body.

Image: Paul Kemp

Next came the long magnetometer boom  which holds two sensitive instruments away from any electrical  interference of the space craft. This boom on the model is about 400mm long and made out of 0.5mm plastic rod formed into a triangle – over a thousand pieces and three days of work went into making the boom, which was then sprayed metallic dull yellow. The science boom, which is mounted opposite from the RTG, holds cameras, sensors, various instruments  and a large Infrared  Interferometer  Spectrometer / Radiometer .The boom was again made from 1.2mm rod made into a square lattice frame work and which supports the plastic instruments sprayed up in black.

Now for the antenna dish – I clamped a piece  of 0.030mm plasticard over a large piece of plywood with a hole in it, softened the card and plunged the bottom of a truck oil filter through to form a dish shape.  The dish sits on a tripod, and was sprayed in Appliance White which makes a great antenna dish white.

Finally, Voyager was mounted on a square piece of varnished wood, which has the Voyager mission badge and NASA logo on it.

Spacecraft Modelmaking: Magellan

Continuing on from his models of the Cassini-Huygens and Galileo spacecraft, Terry Regan this time moves on to the planet Venus and talks us through his scratchbuilt scale model of the Magellan spacecraft.

The Spacecraft

The Magellan spacecraft was the first interplanetary spacecraft to be launched by the Space Shuttle when it was carried onboard the shuttle Atlantis in 1989. Atlantis released Magellan into low Earth orbit, where a solid fuel motor was then fired sending Magellan on a fifteen month cruise to Venus – arriving in August 1990.

The main objectives for Magellan was to map the surface of Venus using radar, collecting topographical and gravity field data in the process. Due to Venus’ constant cloud cover, the surface couldn’t be imaged visually – so high resolution “synthetic aperture radar” was used get near-global images of Venus’ surface.

The spacecraft was designed and built by Martin Marietta and JPL. To save on costs Magellan was made from many spare parts from the Voyager, Galileo, Mariner & Ulysses spacecraft programmes – the main body of the spacecraft was a 10 sided aluminium spare from the Voyager mission, containing computers, data recorders and other subsystems derived from the Galileo mission. For communication back to Earth For included a two lightweight graphite/aluminium antennae spares from the Mariner 9 spacecraft.

This added up to a spacecraft weighing just over 1 tonne (with another 2 tonnes of fuel onboard at launch), standing 15 feet high with a 12 foot high-gain antenna.

 This was all powered by 2 larger solar arrays measuring 2.5 metres across which supplied the spacecraft with 1200 watts of power (although this gradually degraded due to the frequent extreme temperature changes experienced at Venus)

On the 11th October 1994, Magellan’s mission ended having completed 15,030 orbits of Venus. During its final few orbits, the spacecraft executed a special “ windmill “ experiment and 2 days later it became caught in the atmosphere and plunge to the surface. Although much of Magellan would be vaporized, some sections were expected to hit the planets surface intact.

The model has been composited here by Paul Kemp, with a NASA/JPL radar image of Venus

The Model

As with the last two models, Galileo and Cassini-Huygens, Magellan was again scratch-built from plastic card and rods using plans for a paper-card kit. As with all paper models they are in 2D and look rather flat! My first task was to find as many pictures of Magellan from the internet and comparing them to the plans.

I measured up the main spacecraft bus, a 10 sided body, and added details like equipment modules. Next step – out came my truck oil filter which I used to form the main antenna dish – again from plastic card – and made the tripod and feed cone to detail the dish. A coat of plastic primer and 3 coats of Halfords Appliance Gloss White made a very good dish white!

Back to the main model , the Forward Equipment Module was then glued to the bus. Next stage was to build the Propulsion Module Truss out of 1mm plastic rod. The Helium Tank was made from heatgun-softened plastic card with a small ball bearing plunged through. Now on to the Rocket Engine Module – again made out of 1mm plastic rod and scratch built to make 8 rocket thrusters. The altimeter antenna along with the Medium Gain antenna was also scratch built.

The actual spacecraft appeared to be wrapped in white blanket held together with gold tape, I would think this is to reflect heat from the spacecraft. A good coat of primer, then the model was sprayed again in Halfords Appliance White, gold trim came from a gold transfer sheet cut applied to the model, and then a couple of coats of matt lacquer to seal everything in.

The last thing was the solar panels. Two square plastic cards were cut, sprayed silver and masked up into small squares to represent solar panels, then sprayed with transparent blue and a few coats of a pearlescent lacquer. The solar panels and the antenna dish were added to the model and finally I built the rocket nozzle and its fuel tank

The model is 200 mm long and 235 mm wide (from solar panel to solar panel)

Photo by Paul Kemp.


Watch NASA-JPL Make The New Mars Rover

Watch the live stream below as NASA staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they build the Mars Science Laboratory (also known as as “Curiosity”). It’s scheduled for a November 2011 launch and August 2010 landing on Mars.

Note that there is still the opportunity to have your name included on a data chip that will be sent to the Martian surface with the rover.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

NASA Phoenix Mars lander

On the 25th May, NASA’s Phoenix robotic spacecraft will descend onto the surface of Mars.

NASA and JPL have produced an excellent video (which I found on the Bad Astronomy blog) describing the processes involved with getting the probe down safely and highlights the difficulties of doing so.

Phoenix has a massive scientific payload, including robotic arms, stereo cameras, descent imagers, various chemical analysers and climate detectors. The mission aims to study history of water on the surface and to search for of “biological paydirt” in the icy-soil layers of the surface.

Here’s the video:

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