Twelve years ago today, one of the most incredible space missions ever was accomplished: the first landing of a probe on an alien moon. And this wasn’t just any moon, but Titan, largest moon of Saturn and one of the most fascinating worlds in the Solar System. Although much colder than Earth, Titan mimics some of the processes found here such as its hydrological cycle, but with liquid methane/ethane instead of water. Titan had been observed extensively by telescopes and from Saturnian orbit, but this was the first time the surface could be seen up close.
There have been many incredible planetary missions over the past several decades, from as close as our Moon to the outer reaches of the Solar System. Right now, there are robotic explorers at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Ceres, and out past Pluto. But there are two more which have travelled even farther, to the most distant fringes of the Solar System, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Although they were launched way back in 1977, they are still active today, studying the region where our planetary system “ends” and interstellar space begins. Now, the Hubble Space Telescope is being used to help provide a “road map” for their future paths forward.
NASA has chosen two new missions to explore the Solar System; it was announced today during a media teleconference. The missions are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, and after the competing proposals had been narrowed down to five contenders, the final two winners were announced. Both missions, called Lucy and Psyche, will visit asteroids which have never been seen up close: multiple Trojan asteroids which share Jupiter’s orbit and the unusual metal asteroid 16 Psyche. These missions will study such objects which are relics left over from the early beginnings of the Solar System, providing new clues as to how the planets and other bodies formed. Two other mission proposals to return to Venus did not make the cut, unfortunately.
It’s that time of year again when everyone updates their calendars, and if you are searching for a great space-themed calendar, then look no further. The new 2017 edition of The Year in Space Wall Calendar is now available! There are always a handful of other space or astronomy calendars available from other sources, but they pale in comparison to this one.
Charon is Pluto’s largest moon and, despite being so cold and remote from the Sun, has been revealed to be a fascinating and active world, just like Pluto itself. Residing in the far outskirts of the Solar System, it had been expected that Charon – and Pluto for that matter – would be little more than frozen, dead worlds. But just like the rest of the Solar System, there were surprises waiting to be found. Thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, we got our first close-up views of the Pluto system in July 2015. It soon became evident that not only were Pluto and Charon geologically active in the ancient past, but they perhaps still are in some ways even now. One of the most surprising findings was both Pluto and Charon likely had subsurface water oceans; while it is thought that Pluto’s is probably still liquid, Charon’s is likely completely frozen, and now additional evidence for its existence has been published by researchers.
The Curiosity rover has now resumed its journey toward Mount Sharp after experiencing some delays due to a faulty drill mechanism. The rover conducted a short drive over the past weekend toward a new location with “plenty of science targets to choose from.” Being on the road again is of course a relief to mission engineers and scientists, although the problems with the drill are still being diagnosed. As has come to be expected, Curiosity again made some exciting science observations in 2016, which continue to show that this region on Mars was once a lot more habitable in the ancient past, and perhaps bringing us closer to answering the question of whether life ever actually did exist there.
NASA held another press briefing this week about the latest findings from the Curiosity rover on Mars, detailing new evidence that this former lake environment was once quite hospitable for possible life. The findings were announced from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In a related development, there is also new evidence from Curiosity that organics have not only been definitively found by the rover, but that they may be more widespread on Mars than previously thought.
The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its first close pass of Saturn’s ring system, part of the Ring-Grazing Orbits phase of its mission, NASA said yesterday. As might be expected, Cassini has sent back some spectacular new images; these first images show Saturn’s northern hemisphere in incredible detail, including the famous “hexagon” jet stream surrounding the north pole.
As reported earlier this week, the Cassini spacecraft is now preparing to make a series of very close passes by the edges of Saturn’s rings, known as Ring-Grazing Orbits. A couple days ago, Cassini conducted a close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan; this is the second-to-last ever flyby of Titan before Cassini enters the Grand Finale phase of its mission, culminating in a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. During this flyby, Cassini focused on mapping the surface and surface temperatures and used Titan’s gravity to help place the spacecraft into the Ring-Grazing Orbits.
The Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful planetary missions ever, revealing the ringed giant and its moons as never before. Sadly, that mission is scheduled to end Sept. 15, 2017, and in preparation the spacecraft will be making some never-done-before maneuvers as it gets ready to take the final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on that date, aka the Grand Finale. Next week, Cassini will perform one of these feats, flying just past the edge of Saturn’s main rings.