Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Year of the Solar System

This past May, I attended a NASA presentation in Phoenix by Dr. David Williams of ASU. I was extrememly fascinated by what he had to say at this conference about space exploration.   While the space shuttle mission may be on hold for now(no more shuttle missions), there are plenty of satellite missions currently happening or being planned in our solar system.....and beyond.  The direction of the space program seems to be focused on mapping all the planetary bodies and many of their moons in the solar system before planning any human missions. Currently all planets, except Neptune and Uranus, have either rovers or satellites mapping their surfaces OR WILL have satellites/rovers mapping their moons and surfaces(ie. Pluto).  Dr. Williams shared with the audience that Pluto is still considered a planet until further data is received and examined from the New Horizons Mission.  Everyone clapped enthusiastically by that statement.  I love when people get excited about space.:)  The following information is about the detailed projects going on with NASA.  Pictures for this post are not my own.  NASA is calling the time period from 10/10-8/12, "The Year of the Solar System."  Here's a breakdown of the various projects.......
Mercury and the ESA Mission.  "What’s special? Most of ESA's previous interplanetary missions have been to relatively cold parts of the Solar System. BepiColombo will be the Agency's first experience of sending a planetary probe close to the Sun. BepiColombo’s mission is especially challenging because Mercury's orbit is so close to our star. The planet is hard to observe from a distance, because the Sun is so bright. Furthermore, it is difficult to reach because a spacecraft must lose a lot of energy to ‘fall’ towards the planet from the Earth. The Sun’s enormous gravity presents a challenge in placing a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury. Only NASA's Mariner 10 and MESSENGER have visited Mercury so far. Mariner 10 provided the first-ever close-up images of the planet when it flew past three times in 1974-1975. En route to its final destination in orbit around Mercury in 18 March 2011, MESSENGER flew past the planet 3 times (14 January 2008, 6 October 2008, and 29 September 2009), providing new data and images. Once BepiColombo arrives in 2020, it will help reveal information on the composition and history of Mercury. It should discover more about the formation and the history of the inner planets in general, including Earth." Source: http://www.esa.int/esaSC/120391_index_0_m.html

"Venus has often been described as Earth’s sister planet since the two are very similar in size and bulk composition, although they evolved to very different ends. Venus is not currently targeted by any NASA missions although future mission concepts include the Venus In Situ Explorer (VISE) and Venus Mobile Explorer (VME) that would investigate the surface of Venus and help understand the climate change processes that led to the extreme conditions of Venus today. A Venus Surface Sample Return (VSSR) mission is also being considered. These missions remain long-range goals for Venus exploration." Source: http://science.nasa.gov/planetary-science/focus-areas/exploring-the-inner-solar-system/   There have been many missions to Venus which included the infamous Magellan spacecraft. The Magellan was launched into space by NASA in 1989 to map the surface of Venus and test the beginnings of interplanetary exploration which included testing aerobraking(a spaceflight maneuver that reduces the high point of an elliptical orbit by flying the vehicle through the atmosphere at the low point of the orbit). While NASA doesn't have a probe flying to this planet, Japan does. "Akatsuki ("Dawn"), originally designated Planet-C, also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter, is a Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) mission designed to study the dynamics of the atmosphere of Venus from orbit, particularly the upper atmosphere super-rotation and the three-dimensional motion in the lower part of the atmosphere, using multi-wavelength imaging. It will also measure atmospheric temperatures and look for evidence of volcanic activity and lightning." Source: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=2010-020D

The Moon. "The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission is a part of NASA's Discovery Program. It is scheduled to launch in 2011(lecture notes stated September). GRAIL will fly twin spacecraft in tandem orbits around the moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission also will answer longstanding questions about Earth's moon and provide scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

Scientists will use the gravity field information from the two satellites to X-ray the moon from crust to core to reveal the moon's subsurface structures and, indirectly, its thermal history.

The measurement technique that GRAIL will use was pioneered by the joint U.S.-German Earth observing Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, mission launched in 2002. The GRACE satellites measure gravity changes related to the movement of mass within Earth, such as the melting of ice at the poles and changes in ocean circulation. As with GRACE, both GRAIL spacecraft will be launched on a single launch vehicle." Source: http://moon.mit.edu/ I learned something else interesting about the moon and will be writing a specific post on this later on this week.

Another amazing thing I learned from this lecture was that we were also exploring the asteroid belt!  Here is some information on the Dawn Mission. "Dawn, as a mission belonging to NASA’s Discovery Program, delves into the unknown, drives new technology innovations, and achieves what's never been attempted before. In Dawn’s case, it is orbiting one member of the main asteroid belt, Vesta, before heading to gather yet more data at a second, Ceres. Dawn's goal is to characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formations. Ceres and Vesta reside in the extensive zone between Mars and Jupiter together with many other smaller bodies, called the asteroid belt. Each has followed a very different evolutionary path constrained by the diversity of processes that operated during the first few million years of solar system evolution." Source: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/

Mars.  There is a lot of work being done on this planet....in fact, too much to write about in this already extensive post.  I will have a specific and fascinating post on this planet in several days. Right now, the current launch of the rover Curiosity is scheduled for November of this year. I found the landing of this vehicle quite fascinating. Two things of interest.....methane gas and water. That's all I'm going to say:) PS. The landing of this vehicle is really cool! It has lasers:)

Saturn. Currently the Cassini mission is working its way around Saturn and her moons. This mission is scheduled until the year 2017.  This spacecraft is studying several moons around Saturn which include the infamous Titan where water vapor and methane were found.
"Cassini completed its initial four-year mission to explore the Saturn System in June 2008 and the first extended mission, called the Cassini Equinox Mission, in September 2010. Now, the healthy spacecraft is seeking to make exciting new discoveries in a second extended mission called the Cassini Solstice Mission. The mission’s extension, which goes through September 2017, is named for the Saturnian summer solstice occurring in May 2017. The northern summer solstice marks the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. Since Cassini arrived at Saturn just after the planet's northern winter solstice, the extension will allow for the first study of a complete seasonal period.Cassini launched in October 1997 with the European Space Agency's Huygens probe. The probe was equipped with six instruments to study Titan, Saturn's largest moon. It landed on Titan's surface on Jan. 14, 2005, and returned spectacular results. Meanwhile, Cassini's 12 instruments have returned a daily stream of data from Saturn's system since arriving at Saturn in 2004. Among the most important targets of the mission are the moons Titan and Enceladus, as well as some of Saturn’s other icy moons. Towards the end of the mission, Cassini will make closer studies of the planet and its rings.

Small, icy Enceladus is of great scientific interest because it is surprisingly active. Cassini discovered an icy plume shooting from this moon, and subsequent observations have revealed the spray contains complex organic chemicals. Tidal heating is keeping Enceladus warm, and hotspots associated with the fountains have been pinpointed. With heat, organic chemicals and, potentially liquid water, Enceladus could be a place where primitive life forms might evolve. Questions surrounding Enceladus’s “astrobiological potential” are at the heart of many investigations being conducted in the Solstice Mission.

Cassini catapulted our knowledge of giant, haze-enshrouded Titan into a whole new realm. During the primary and extended missions Cassini investigated the structure and complex organic chemistry of Titan's thick, smog-filled atmosphere. On the frigid, alien surface, the spacecraft and its Huygens probe revealed vast methane lakes and widespread stretches of wind-sculpted hydrocarbon sand dunes. Cassini researchers also deduced the presence of an internal, liquid water-ammonia ocean.
Titan remains a top priority as scientists hope to catch the moon’s surface features in the act of changing. The spacecraft will look for signs of seasonal climate change such as storms, flooding, or changes in lake levels, as well as evidence of volcanic activity.

The spacecraft eventually will make repeated dives between Saturn and its rings to obtain in depth knowledge of the gas giant. During these close encounters, the spacecraft will study the internal structure of Saturn, its magnetic fluctuations, and the mass of the rings.
From a distance the rings look ordered and tidy. But up close, Cassini finds Saturn’s rings to be a complex place where small moons and ring particles jostle and collide, where waves and jets constantly form and dissipate.
Icy Moons
Cassini is revisiting many of Saturn’s icy moons in the Solstice Mission. Over multiple flybys, Cassini will study the intriguing bright and dark surfaces of Dione and Rhea to compare their geological and cratering histories with those of other icy moons. Scientists will also study further the unique thermal features recently discovered on Mimas.
Magnetic Environment
Cassini’s continued journey carries it throughout the huge sphere of magnetic activity that surrounds Saturn. One major discovery was that water ice jets from Enceladus play a major role in Saturn’s magnetosphere. Water from the jets loads up the magnetosphere, influencing radio and auroral activity, and even causes changes in the rotation of the magnetic field itself. The Solstice mission will study these phenomena in unexplored areas of the magnetosphere and probe for links to Enceladus in addition to connections with other moons." Source: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/introduction/
Jupiter. "The Juno mission is the next scientific investigation in the NASA New Frontiers Program. The mission's primary science goal is to significantly improve our understanding of the formation and structure of Jupiter. By advancing our knowledge of the giant planet, we will also dramatically advance our understanding of the origins and early evolution of our own solar system at the most fundamental level. The Juno spacecraft will investigate Jupiter's origins, its interior structure, its deep atmosphere and its magnetosphere from an innovative, highly elliptical orbit with a suite of seven science instruments. In addition, a camera called JunoCam will be used by student participants in the Juno Education and Public Outreach program to take the first images of Jupiter's polar regions.
Juno Mission Trajectory

Juno will achieve the mission science goals by sending a spinning, solar-powered spacecraft into a unique Jupiter polar orbit with close perijove. The mission design provides a maximum delivered payload to Jupiter and a unique polar orbit which satisfies the science measurement requirements while minimizing the radiation exposure of the science instruments. Juno is currently planned to be launched in August 2011 and will travel towards Jupiter after an Earth fly-by in October 2013 to provide a gravity assist.  After a five year journey the spacecraft arrives at Jupiter in 2016. A Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) and JOI clean up over the next two perijoves (closest point to Jupiter) assures an ~11 day orbit. Perijove at 1.06 Jupiter Radii and apojove at ~39 Jupiter Radii combined with the 90 degree polar orbit, provides the resolution and global viewing geometry required to achieve the mission science goals. The polar orbit with close perijove also allows the spacecraft to avoid the bulk of the Jovian radiation field. During the one year, 32 orbit nominal mission, the line of apsides or the orbit precesses due to Jupiter's oblateness. The 32 orbit one year mission at Jupiter fits nicely between solar conjunctions, further simplifying mission operations." Source: http://juno.wisc.edu/mission.html

Finally...and the most exciting.  The New Horizons mission to Pluto.  It was launched in 2006 and will fly by Pluto in the year 2015.  This is a historic mission as this spacecraft runs differently than others.  It will pass Pluto and fly into the Koiper Belt.  This will also get its own post.
"In 2006, NASA dispatched an ambassador to the planetary frontier. The New Horizons spacecraft is now halfway between Earth and Pluto, on approach for a dramatic flight past the icy planet and its moons in July 2015. After 10 years and more than 3 billion miles, on a historic voyage that has already taken it over the storms and around the moons of Jupiter, New Horizons will shed light on new kinds of worlds we've only just discovered on the outskirts of the solar system. Pluto gets closer by the day, and New Horizons continues into rare territory, as just the fifth probe to traverse interplanetary space so far from the Sun. And the first to travel so far, to reach a new planet for exploration." Source: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

So why all of this?  My heart belongs in the stars as it does in the garden. These posts will explore the bigger mysteries uncovered by previous spacecraft and also the heart of imagination. I'm sorry for this long post.....and it will be the longest of this series, but I hope you find these writes interesting. Until tomorrow....we'll take a break from the science and explore the fiction:)


  1. I was also so happy to hear that Pluto is still considered a planet for now. Great info. My father was an explorer...always had his telescope and we were out looking at the night sky as I was growing up! Very interesting, detailed and endless topic, this universe.

  2. I enjoyed every word
    I have loved space since the 50's
    yeah I'm that old
    I grew up on scifi movies

  3. That's a cool rover! I hope it will be able to collect back many samples.

  4. Gracias por visitar mi espacio. Me gusta mucho la foto de esos impresionantes cactus que tienes puesta en la portada del blog. Saludos desde España :)

  5. I am very much thankful to Rohrerbot. I have been browsing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. thanks for sharing this post, it's very nice post...


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