America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.
NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).
The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.
The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.
The proposed Mars budget cuts will obliterate these top priority science goals for NASA.
The BBC reports that “ a public announcement by NASA of its withdrawal from the ExoMars program will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted.”
A Feb. 9 article in ScienceInsider, a publication of the journal Science, states that “President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency.”
This would amount to a 20% cut from $1.5 Billion in 2012 to $1.2 Billion in 2013. The bulk of that reduction is aimed squarely at purposefully eliminating the ExoMars program. And further deep cuts are planned in coming years !
The Mars budget of about $580 million this year would be radically reduced by over $200 million, thereby necessitating the end of NASA’s participation in ExoMars. These cuts will have a devastating impact on American scientists and engineers working on Mars missions.
The fallout from the looming science funding cuts also caused one longtime and top NASA manager to resign.
According to ScienceInsider, Ed Weiler, NASA’s science mission chief, says he “quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program.”
“The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” said Ed Weiler to ScienceInsider.
“In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”
“This is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?”
Weiler’s resignation from NASA on Sept. 30, 2011 was sudden and quick, virtually from one day to the next. And it came shortly after the successful launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar probes, when I spoke to Weiler about Mars and NASA’s Planetary Science missions and the gloomy future outlook. Read my earlier Universe Today story about Weiler’s retirement.
Ed Weiler was the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and his distinguished career spanned almost 33 years.
The dire wrangling over NASA’s 2013 budget has been ongoing for many months and some of the funding reductions had already leaked out. For example NASA had already notified ESA that the US could not provide funding for the Atlas V launchers in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, Weiler and other NASA managers told me the 2018 mission was de-scoped from two surface rovers down to just one to try and save the Mars mission program.
ESA is now inviting Russian participation to replace the total American pullout, which will devastate the future of Red Planet science in the US. American scientists and science instruments would be deleted from the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.
The only approved US mission to Mars is the MAVEN orbiter due to blastoff in 2013 – and there are NO cameras aboard MAVEN.
NASA is caught in an inescapable squeeze between rising costs for ongoing and ambitious new missions and an extremely tough Federal budget environment with politicians of both political affiliations looking to cut what they can to rein in the deficit, no matter the consequences of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.
NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing wrote; “Details of the FY 2013 NASA budget are starting to trickle out. One of the most prominent changes will be the substantial cut to planetary science at SMD [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate]. At the same time, the agency has to eat $1 billion in Webb telescope overruns – half of which will come out of SMD.”
The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has skyrocketed to $8.7 Billion.
To pay for JWST, NASA is being forced to gut the Mars program and other science missions funded by the same Science Mission Directorate that in the past and present has stirred the public with a mindboggling payoff of astounding science results from many missions that completely reshaped our concept of humankinds place in the Universe.
Meanwhile, China’s space program is rapidly expanding and employing more and more people. China’s scientific and technological prowess and patent applications are increasing and contributing to their fast growing economy as American breakthroughs and capabilities are diminishing.
Under the budget cutting scenario of no vision, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover will be America’s last Mars rover for a long, long time. Curiosity will thus be the third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th generation to be Axed !
The Lander platform for NASA’s Spirit rover has been photographed in stunning high resolution color for the first time from Mars orbit – just over 8 years after the now legendary robot survived the scorching atmospheric heat of the 6 minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and bounced to a stop inside Gusev Crater on January 3, 2004.
Spirit’s three petaled landing pad was finally imaged in color by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft just days ago on January 29, 2012 at 3:04 p.m. local Mars time.
The MRO spacecraft was soaring overhead and captured the image of Spirit’s lander with the high resolution HiRISE camera from a distance of some 262 kilometers, (162 miles).
“HiRISE has never before imaged the actual lander for the Spirit rover in color, [located] on the west side of Bonneville Crater,” writes Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona.
While protectively cocooned inside the airbag cushioned lander, Spirit bounced about two dozen times before rolling to rest on the Martian plains about ¼ mile away from Bonneville Crater. Then her landing petals unfurled, the airbags were partially retracted and Spirit eventually drove off the landing pad.
“The lander is still bright, but with a reddish color, probably due to a [Martian] dust cover.”
Spirit initially drove to Bonneville Crater and circumnavigated part way around the rim before speeding off towards the Columbia Hills, about 2 miles to the East. She eventually scaled the summit of Husband Hill and drove down the opposite side to the Home Plate” volcanic feature where she rests today – see travse map below.
“A bright spot from a remnant of the heat shield is still visible on the north rim of Bonneville Crater. The backshell and parachute are still bright, but were not captured in the narrow color swath.”
“The rover itself can still be seen near “Home Plate” in the Columbia Hills, but there is no obvious sign of rover tracks–erased by the wind,” McEwen notes.
Here is a photo taken by Spirit looking back to the lander – now imaged in color from orbit for the first time – for a comparative view, before she drove off forever.
Spirit endured for more than six years of bonus time exploration beyond her planned 90 day mission. And Opportunity is still roving Mars today !
Curiosity – NASA’s newest, biggest ever and maybe last Mars rover – is speeding through interplanetary space for an August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater.
Read my 8th Year Anniversary articles about Spirit and Opportunity on Mars – here and here
Today, the resilient Opportunity robot begins her 9th year roving around beautifully Earth-like Martian terrain where potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago.
Opportunity celebrates her 8th anniversary on the Red Planet gazing at the foothills of the vast crater named Endeavour, promising a “mother lode” of “watery” science – an unimaginable circumstance since the nail biting landing on the hematite rich plains of Meridiani Planum on 24 January 2004.
“Opportunity is 97 months into the 3 month mission,” team members are proud and universally surprised to say.
“Milestones like 8 years on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back,” Rover Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told Universe Today for this article commemorating Opportunity’s landing.
“We’ve still got a lot of exploring to do, but we’re doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission. That means that every sol is a gift at this point.”
Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the Red Planet’s surface during what is truly humankind’s first overland expedition on another Planet. See our route map below.
NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity blasted off for Mars atop a pair of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 with a mission “warranty” of just 90 Martian days, or Sols.
Today is Sol 2846 of working operations for Opportunity, compared to an anticipated lifetime of only 90 Sols – that amounts to more than 31 times beyond the designer’s expectations.
Indeed, the long lived robot is now enduring her 5th Winter on Mars. And to glimpse the next Martian sunrise, the robo girls manmade components must survive the harsh extremes of frigid Antarctic-like temperatures each and every sol.
“I never thought that we would still be planning sequences for Opportunity today,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy rover principal investigator.
“I seriously thought both Spirit and Opportunity would be finished by the summer of 2004.”
But, Opportunity is the gift to science that keeps on giving.
“I am feeling pretty good as the MER rover anniversaries approach,” Arvidson told me.
“Opportunity has shown that ancient ephemeral shallow lakes existed as Mars moved climatically from an early period when the cratered terrain was cut by fluvial channels to the current dry and cold conditions that dominate.”
“Both rovers have conclusively shown the need for lateral mobility to get to relevant outcrops and back out the secrets associated with past conditions,” Arvidson explained.
Barely a month ago the bountiful harvest from mobility was once again demonstrated when the science team lead by Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars.
Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had found a bright vein – named “Homestake” – composed of the mineral gypsum located at the Cape York segment of Endeavour Crater where the intrepid robot is currently spending her 5th Martian Winter.
“This gypsum vein is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover,” Squyres explained.
Veins are a geologic indication of the past flow of liquid water.
See our mosaic below illustrating the exact location of the “Homestake” vein at Endeavour Crater – also published at Astronomy Picture of the Day; 12 Dec 2011.
Opportunity just arrived at the rim of the 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields from her prior investigative target at the ½ mile wide Victoria Crater.
“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” says Squyres.
For the next few months of the bitterly cold Martian winter, Opportunity will conduct a vigorous science campaign while remaining mostly stationary at a spot dubbed “Greeley Haven” in honor of Prof. Ronald Greeley, a team member from Arizona State University who recently passed away.
At this moment Opportunity is snapping a 360 degree panorama, deploying her robotic arm onto nearby outcrops, collecting microscopic images, making measurements of mineral compositions with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and conducting radio science observations to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core.
The rover is covered with a significant coating of dust which limits her ability to generate power from the life sustaining solar arrays. Since Opportunity is traversing just south of the equator, engineers have temporarily parked her on a northerly facing slope to maximize the electric power generation.
“Opportunity is currently sitting on an outcrop of impact breccias at Greeley Haven on Cape York,” said Arvidson.
Opportunity will remain at Greeley Haven until some time after the Winter Solstice of southern Martian winter occurs at the end of March.
Then she’ll head south to further explore the veins and eventually drive to deposits of the clay mineral located a few miles (km) away along the craters rim.
“We’ll do good science while we’re at Greeley Haven. But as soon as we catch a wind gust or the seasons change, we’ll be on our way again,” Squyres told me.
The legendary twins Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in space exploration.
NASA’s seemingly indestructible Opportunity rover has arrived at the breathtaking location where she’ll be working through her unfathomable 5th Martian Winter. The Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover has not only endured, but flourished for 8 years of unending “Exploration & Discovery” on the Red Planet despite having an expected lifetime at landing of just 3 months, way back in January 2004.
Opportunity is parked at a northward facing outcrop dubbed “Greeley Haven” where she can soak up the sun and juice her innards throughout the utterly harsh and Antarctic-like temperatures on tap for the next few months that threaten to kill her each and every Martian day. See our mosaic above around the Greeley Haven area.
Science team members told Universe Today that the rover is sitting at Greeley Haven because the site offers a roughly 15 degree tilt that will maximize the electric output from the life-giving solar arrays and also allow the robot to carry out a vigorous science campaign during the seasonal Martian winter season that officially begins in March.
Greeley Haven is a located at the northern tip of the “Cape York” segment of the western rim of the vast crater named Endeavour, some 14 miles (22 km) wide that’s loaded with a bountiful variety of rocks and soil that neither Opportunity nor her twin Spirit have ever touched and drilled into before and stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining life.
“Opportunity is currently sitting on Saddleback at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of impact breccias on Cape York, Endeavour crater’s rim,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvisdon is the mission’s deputy principal investigator, of Washington University in St. Louis.
“Her northerly tilt is about ~15 degrees which is enough to have a vibrant winter campaign. The Martian southern winter solstice occurs at the end of March. A few months after that date we will drive her off the outcrop and further explore Cape York.”
“Greeley Haven” is named in tribute to planetary Geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011) who was a beloved member of the rover science team and a host of other NASA planetary missions. He taught at Arizona State University and inspired several generations of students and planetary scientists until his recent death on Oct. 27, 2011.
“We’ll hunker down at Greeley Haven as long as we need to, and we’ll do good science while we’re there,” Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., told Universe Today. Squyres is the Principal Investigator for Opportunity.
Opportunity is collecting a high resolution 360 degree panorama to commemorate Greeley.
Throughout the past 4 Martian winters, Opportunity had continued to traverse without pause. But this winter time it’s different because the solar panels are significantly more coated with an obscuring layer of dust hindering their energy output.
So the rover is parked with a tilt for her 5th Martian winter, mimicking the successful strategy power boosting used by Spirit to survive 3 harsh Martian winters.
And there is a silver lining to sitting mostly still that enables a chance to determine what’s at the core of the Red Planet, a key fact we don’t know.
“This winter science campaign will feature two way radio tracking with Earth to determine the Martian spin axis dynamics – thus the interior structure, a long-neglected aspect of Mars,” Arvidson told me.
I asked Squyres for a progress update and how long would the data collection require ?
Squyres replied that the experiment has already begun and added – “Hard to say how long. It’s months, as opposed to weeks or years, but it depends very much on data quality and the amount of data we get per week. We’re very early in the experiment now… we’ll just see how it goes.”
NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.
To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.
The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.
It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.
Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !
The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.
With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.
At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.
All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.
Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.
Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.
So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?
NASA’s car-sized Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is now on course to touch down inside a crater on Mars in August following the completion of the biggest and most crucial firing of her 8.5 month interplanetary journey from Earth to the Red Planet.
Engineers successfully commanded an array of thrusters on MSL’s solar powered cruise stage to carry out a 3 hour long series of more than 200 bursts last night (Jan. 11) that changed the spacecraft’s trajectory by about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) – an absolute necessity that actually put the $2.5 Billion probe on a path to Mars to “Search for Signatures of Life !”
“We’ve completed a big step toward our encounter with Mars,” said Brian Portock of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager for the cruise phase of the mission. “The telemetry from the spacecraft and the Doppler data show that the maneuver was completed as planned.”
This was the first of six possible TCM’s or trajectory correction maneuvers that may be required to fine-tune the voyage to Mars.
Until now, Curiosity was actually on a path to intentionally miss Mars. Since the Nov. 26, 2011 blastoff from Florida, the spacecraft’s trajectory was tracking a course diverted slightly away from the planet in order to prevent the upper stage – trailing behind – from crashing into the Red Planet.
The upper stage was not decontaminated to prevent it from infecting Mars with Earthly microbes. So, it will now sail harmlessly past the planet as Curiosity dives into the Martian atmosphere on August 6, 2012.
The thruster maneuver also served a second purpose, which was to advance the time of the Mars encounter by about 14 hours. The TCM burn increased the velocity by about 12.3 MPH (5.5 meters per second) as the vehicle was spinning at 2 rpm.
“The timing of the encounter is important for arriving at Mars just when the planet’s rotation puts Gale Crater in the right place,” said JPL’s Tomas Martin-Mur, chief navigator for the mission.
Video caption: Rob Manning, Curiosity Mars Science Lab Chief Engineer at NASA JPL describes the Jan. 11, 2012 thruster firing that put the robot on a precise trajectory to Gale Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
As of today, Jan. 12, the spacecraft has traveled 81 million miles (131 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars. It is moving at about 10,300 mph (16,600 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth, and at about 68,700 mph (110,500 kilometers per hour) relative to the Sun.
The next trajectory correction maneuver is tentatively scheduled for March 26, 2012.
The goal of the 1 ton Curiosity rover is to investigate whether the layered terrain inside Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for supporting Martian microbial life in the past or present and if it preserved clues about whether life ever existed.
Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life, most notably organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The robot is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.
Curiosity Countdown – 205 days to go until Curiosity lands at Gale Crater on Mars !
January 2012 marks the 8th anniversary of the landings of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers back in January 2004.
Opportunity continues to operate to this day. Read my salute to Spirit here
A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !
NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.
“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”
This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.
There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !
Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.
“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.
And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !
Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order
1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1
Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.
The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).
The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006
Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.
Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”
“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.
2. MESSENGER at Mercury
On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.
So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.
“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.
“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”
“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.
MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.
NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.
3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter
The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.
“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.
Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.
Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.
Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.
“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”
4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter
The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.
Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.
The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.
The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.
“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”
5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars
The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.
In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.
Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.
Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.
6. GRAIL Moon Mappers
The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.
The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.
Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).
The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”
“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
7. Curiosity Mars Rover
The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.
“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.
The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.
Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA
Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.
“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.
This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.
Barely two weeks into the 8 month journey to the Red Planet, NASA’sCuriosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover was commanded to already begin collecting the first science of the mission by measuring the ever present radiation environment in space.
Engineers powered up the MSL Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) that monitors high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun, distant supernovas and other sources.
RAD is the only one of the car-sized Curiosity’s 10 science instrument that will operate both in space as well as on the Martian surface. It will provide key data that will enable a realistic assessment of the levels of lethal radiation that would confront any potential life forms on Mars as well as Astronauts voyaging between our solar systems planets.
“RAD is the first instrument on Curiosity to be turned on. It will operate throughout the long journey to Mars,” said Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
These initial radiation measurements are focused on illuminating possible health effects facing future human crews residing inside spaceships.
Video Caption: The Radiation Assessment Detector is the first instrument on Curiosity to begin science operations. It was powered up and began collecting data on Dec. 6, 2011. Credit: NASA
“We want to characterize the radiation environment inside the spacecraft because it’s different from the radiation environment measured in interplanetary space,” says Hassler.
RAD is located on the rover which is currently encapsulated within the protective aeroshell. Therefore the instrument is positioned inside the spacecraft, simulating what it would be like for an astronaut with some shielding from the external radiation, measuring energetic particles.
“The radiation hitting the spacecraft is modified by the spacecraft, it gets changed and produces secondary particles. Sometimes those secondary particles can be more damaging than the primary radiation itself.”
“What’s new is that RAD will measure the radiation inside the spacecraft, which will be very similar to the environment that a future astronaut might see on a future mission to Mars.”
Curiosity’s purpose is to search for the ingredients of life and assess whether the rovers landing site at Gale Crater could be or has been favorable for microbial life.
The Martian surface is constantly bombarded by deadly radiation from space. Radiation can destroy the very organic molecules which Curiosity seeks.
“After Curiosity lands, we’ll be taking radiation measurements on the surface of another planet for the first time,” notes Hassler.
RAD was built by a collaboration of the Southwest Research Institute, together with Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany with funding from NASA’s Human Exploration Directorate and Germany’s national aerospace research center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt.
“What Curiosity might find could be a game-changer about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “One thing is certain: The rover’s discoveries will provide critical data that will impact human and robotic planning and research for decades.”
Curiosity was launched from Florida on Nov. 26. After sailing on a 254 day and 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) interplanetary flight from the Earth to Mars, Curiosity will smash into the atmosphere at 13,000 MPH on August 6, 2012 and pioneer a nail biting and first-of-its-kind precision rocket powered descent system to touchdown inside layered terrain at Gale Crater astride a 3 mile (5 km) high mountain that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.
Miraculously, NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover and onboard instruments and cameras have managed to survive nearly 8 years of brutally harsh Martian radiation and arctic winters.
There’s been a lot of artifacts sent to the surface of Mars – and now there’s about to be another one left for future generations to discover. Artist Jon Lomberg has collaborated with a team of space scientists to design a sundial which sports edges with designs and images. These embellishments have been authored by Jim Bell and the MER sundial team with the graphics designed by Lomberg.
The upcoming scientific mission to Mars – the Mars Science Laboratory – rover is called Curiosity. Much like its forerunners, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the planned sundial will also act as a camera calibration target for the Mastcam camera. Developed by Malin Space Science Systems, inc. of San Diego, CA, the Mastcam camera will be the rover’s principal instrument for photographing the Martian surface. It was developed under the supervision of Principal Investigator Michael Malin and the calibration target will become an outstanding educational opportunity for students. How? The image of the sundial can be transmitted back to Earth, where watchers can engage themselves with how such simple tools can be used to pinpoint times, dates, seasons and even latitudes on Mars. This celebration of space exploration is further cemented by the artistry contained on the “face” of the sundial – the word for Mars written in sixteen languages, including ancient Sumerian, Mayan, Inuktitut, and Hawaiian.
The original idea for this creative educational experience came from Bill Nye The Science Guy, who is currently the Executive Director of The Planetary Society. The message comes from Planetary Society President, Professor James Bell, who is also the MER imaging scientist and leader of the team which included Lomberg to design the sundial and its message. However, don’t think the message was designed for aliens! This time the artwork was intended for future generations of “Martians” – human beings who may one day explore or inhabit Mars. It might be within our lifetimes and it might be centuries from now, but perhaps some day an explorer will encounter what we’ve left behind. This is truly the target audience the message is being left for – but we can only hope they understand English, the primary language of the nation from where the probe originated. The illustrations are simple and elegant – an attempt to show mankind’s involvement with Mars. It combines classic illustrations of the god Ares, an astronomer’s interpretation of Mars, the Viking lander and assorted Mars spacecraft. Like the symbolic step on the Moon, the footprints on the Martian soil are meant to evoke the sands of time and our human need to explore.
Both Spirit and Opportunity took similar sundials along for the ride – ones that included Bell and Lomberg on the design team. While the idea was much the same, they were crafted with a different date, motto and message that combined Lomberg’s drawings and children’s art. The same team, including Diane Bollen, Lou Friedman, Sheri Klug, Tyler Nordgren, Bill Nye, Steve Squyres, Larry Stark, Woody Sullivan, and Aileen Yingst, also provided input on Curiosity’s new message. Jim Bell is a planetary scientist from Arizona State University in Tempe AZ, the Payload Element Lead for the Pancam instruments on Spirit and Opportunity, and President of The Planetary Society in Pasadena, CA and artist Jon Lomberg was Design Director for NASA’s Voyager Golden Record and a long-time collaborator of Carl Sagan. He won an Emmy Award for his work as Chief Artist of the TV series COSMOS.
There are still a lot of credits to go along, though. Lomberg is on his fifth Mars’ message artifact and earlier work includes Russia’s failed Mars 96 mission. As of now, three of Lomberg’s visions have made it to the Red Planet and soon the fifth will be on its way!