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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Latest in Space Exploration

A quick departure from gaming for a moment to discuss space exploration, an interest both BNG Possum and I share. There are many exciting interplanetary and space missions ongoing currently. Here, I have listed a few of the more high-profile missions that will provide cutting-edge scientific data. Follow the hyperlinks to see the latest images and mission updates.

New Horizons: the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and Charon (Pluto’s moon).

New Horizons was launched on Jan. 19, 2006 and will flyby Pluto in July 2015. It will continue to the outermost solar system in order to perform flybys of the Kuiper Belt Objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. The science instruments onboard the spacecraft will provide information on the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres of the bodies it encounters.

Image: Liftoff of the Atlas V carrying NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to a distant date with Pluto. Image Credit: NASA/KSC

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: seeking evidence for long-duration water on Mars and scouting future landing sites

MRO was launched Aug. 12, 2005, and will arrive at Mars in March, 2006. MRO will use its science instruments to closely examine the surface to look for minerals or features that are evidence of long-term water on Mars. It will also look for underground water or ice and monitor the atmosphere.

Image: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (artist's conception). Image credit: NASA/JPL

Stardust: NASA’s comet sample return mission

Stardust was launched Feb. 7, 1999, and collected cometary dust during its close encounter with Comet Wild 2. The spacecraft also collected interstellar dust (consisting of both materials from outside our solar system and possibly materials left over from the formation of our solar system). Stardust captured the dust in a silica-based aerogel.

The rendezvous occurred January 2004, and the samples were returned to Earth on Jan. 15, 2006. We expect some really interesting new research to come from these samples now that they are back here on Earth where they can be studied thoroughly in the laboratory.

Image: Composite of comet Wild 2. This composite image was taken by the navigation camera during the close approach phase of Stardust's Jan 2, 2004, flyby of comet Wild 2. Several large depressed regions can be seen. The images show an intensely active surface, jetting dust and gas streams into space and leaving a trail millions of kilometers long. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Cassini-Huygens: international exploration of the Saturn system

The Cassini Orbiter and Huygens Probe was launched Oct. 15, 1997, and arrived at Saturn in July, 2004. The Huygens Probe was released into the Titan atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005, and provided the first images of the surface of Titan (the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the only moon in the solar system to have a thick atmosphere).

Image: Titan in infrared.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This image was returned by the Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. Pebbles of water and hydrocarbon ice lay on the surface.
Image credit: ESA/NASA/Univ. of Arizona
Data returned from the first year of this mission (July 2005) included many exciting new discoveries. The surface of Titan was revealed to be Earth-like and may have volcanoes, rain clouds, lakes, and dune fields. Cassini captured the highest resolution images of Saturn’s rings ever and found many new moons within the rings. Many of Saturn’s moons have been imaged in remarkable detail, and each has its own set of surprising features, illustrating that moons in the outer solar system are amazingly diverse in composition, geology, and history.

Dione in front of Saturn.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
South pole of Saturn's moon Tethys. The giant rift Ithaca Chasma cuts across the disk.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn's moon Pan occupies the Encke Gap at the center of this image, which also displays some of the A ring's intricate wave structure.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This stunning false-color view of Saturn's moon Hyperion reveals crisp details across the
strange moon's surface. Differences in color could represent differences in the composition of surface materials.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn's moon Mimas.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
This close-up view of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Mars Express: ESA’s first visit to another planet

Mars Express was launched Jun. 2, 2003 and arrived at Mars in December, 2003. It is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) first visit to another planet. Mars Express is seeking to answer questions about Martian geology, atmospheric science, and water, as well as the potential for life on Mars. Mars Express features a radar instrument, which is the first of its kind at Mars.

Results from Mars Express include: the first detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere, evidence for recent volcanic activity on Mars (within the last 2 myr), and the identification of sulfates and phyllosilicates from orbit (evidence that water was present).

Image: Mars Express. The mission's main objective is to search for subsurface water from orbit (artist's conception). Image credit: ESA

Mars Exploration Rovers:
NASA’s “twin robot geologists”.

The MERs were launched toward Mars in June and July, 2003, and landed on Mars in January, 2004. The primary goal of the rovers is to search for evidence of water activity on Mars. One rover (Spirit) landed in Gusev Crater, which was thought to be an ancient lake bed. The other rover (
Opportunity) landed in Meridiani Planum, which was known to contain unusual deposits of hematite that likely formed from water. Both rovers are still currently operating.

Image: Part of the "Columbia Hills" as viewed by the Spirit MER.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Both rovers have survived more than one Martian year on the surface of Mars (approx. 2 Earth years). Opportunity found small spherical hematite grains, sulfate rich rocks, and sedimentary layers – evidence for multiple episodes of water in Meridiani Planum. Spirit didn’t find evidence for a lake bed at its landing site, so it headed for the hills (The Columbia Hills), along the way it studied lavas, wind, and sand. Some of the materials in the Columbia Hills contain the much anticipated evidence for water in the form of sulfates.

Image: Hematite
spherules at "Berry Bowl" in the "Eagle Crater"
outcrop, Meridiani Planum, Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL- Caltech/Cornell
Image: Rock nicknamed "Last Chance," which lies within the outcrop near
Opportunity's landing site at Meridiani Planum, Mars. The image shows evidence
of ripple cross-stratification and flowing water.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

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