This week marks another important milestone in the Cassini mission at Saturn – as of today, the spacecraft is conducting the last Ring-Grazing Orbit of its mission as it prepares for the Grand Finale, which will culminate in the death of the probe on Sept. 15. On April 21, Cassini will do its very last close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Speaking of Titan, Cassini has also apparently solved a perplexing mystery; the unusual “magic island” formations seen in one of the moon’s methane/ethane seas are now thought to be caused by nitrogen bubbles fizzing periodically on the sea’s surface.
NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful and awe-inspiring ever, studying the giant ringed planet and its many moons since 2004. But now, scientists are preparing for what everyone knew would come eventually – the end of Cassini’s excursions throughout the Saturn system. Yesterday, NASA held a news conference to celebrate what Cassini has accomplished and outline what will happen during the next few months, culminating with the end of the mission in September.
It may not seem like it, but it is approaching two years now since New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. But even though it has been quiet since then, the mission continues, as the spacecraft is now preparing for its next flyby of another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – and now New Horizons has reached the halfway point between Pluto and the next target, called 2014 MU69. It’s another major milestone for a mission that gave us our first close-up views of the Pluto system, and revealed worlds utterly alien and unique in the Solar System.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft has successfully completed its fifth close flyby of Jupiter, gathering more scientific data and sending back more incredible images of the largest planet in our Solar System. Juno, the first mission dedicated to Jupiter since Galileo, has been helping scientists to understand some of the long-standing mysteries about the largest planet in our Solar System.
As the Curiosity rover continues its traverse among the buttes and sand dunes of Gale crater, you would expect to see some wear and tear after a few years. The rover’s wheels have naturally taken the brunt of that, with small dents and holes appearing in the solid aluminum. But now, new damage has been seen for the first time, breaks in the raised treads on the wheels, called grousers. While not unexpected, and not a mission-stopper by any means, it does show how the wheels, and the rover overall, have been aging since landing in 2012.
Last week, Planetaria reported on why NASA should return to Venus, and new technology being developed to help make that happen, especially as in longer-lived landers or rovers. With its extremely hostile conditions, Venus has been much less of a priority in more recent years, at least in terms of surface missions, despite it being Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. But now there may be more impetus towards a new mission – not one that NASA would do alone, but rather a joint mission with Russia, known as Venera-D.
NASA’s Cassini mission may be entering its last several months now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any more cool science discoveries to be made. Some amazing new images were just posted of one of Saturn’s tiniest moons, Pan. This small asteroid-like object orbits Saturn within a gap in the rings and so is known as a ring moon. Scientists had a basic idea of what it looked like before, kind of like a walnut in earlier Cassini images, but the new images show it in much more detail and reveal how odd-looking it really is – more like a giant ravioli or dumpling. There have also been some incredible new close-up images of Saturn’s rings, as Cassini continues the Ring-Grazing Orbits phase of its mission. The images reveal intricate details never seen before in the structure of the rings.