We at Universe Today have snow on our minds these days with all this Polar Vortex talk. From out the window, the snowflakes all look the same, but peer at flakes under a microscope and you can see all these different designs pop up. Turns out that our asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is also much more diverse than previously believed, all because astronomers took the time to do a detailed survey.
Here’s the interesting thing: the diversity, the team says, implies that Earth-like planets would be hard to find, which could be a blow for astronomers seeking an Earth 2.0 somewhere out in the universe if other research agrees.
To jump back a couple of steps, there’s a debate about how water arose on Earth. One theory is that back billions of years ago when the solar system was settling into its current state — a time when planetesimals were crashing into each other constantly and the larger planets possibly migrated between different orbits — comets and asteroids bearing water crashed into a proto-Earth.
“If true, the stirring provided by migrating planets may have been essential to bringing those asteroids,” the astronomers stated in a press release. “This raises the question of whether an Earth-like exoplanet would also require a rain of asteroids to bring water and make it habitable. If so, then Earth-like worlds might be rarer than we thought.”
To take this example further, the researchers found that the asteroid belt comes from a mix of locations around the solar system. Well, a model the astronomers cite shows that Jupiter once migrated much closer to the sun, basically at the same distance as where Mars is now.
When Jupiter migrated, it disturbed everything in its wake and possibly removed as much as 99.9 per cent of the original asteroid population. And other planet migrations in general threw in rocks from everywhere into the asteroid belt. This means the origin of water in the belt could be more complicated than previously believed.
You can read more details of the survey in the journal Nature. Data was gathered from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the research was led by Francesca DeMeo, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
There’s a potential “cometary graveyard” of inactive comets in our solar system wandering between Mars and Jupiter, a new Colombian research paper says. This contradicts a long-standing view that comets originate on the fringes of the solar system, in the Oort Cloud.
Mysteriously, however, 12 active comets have been seen in and around the asteroid belt. The astronomers theorize there must be a number of inactive comets in this region that flare up when a stray gravitational force from Jupiter nudges the comets so that they receive more energy from the Sun.
The researchers examined comets originating from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a spot where it is believed there are only asteroids (small bodies made up mostly of rock). Comets, by contrast, are a mixture of rocks and ice. The ice melts when the comet gets close to the sun, and can form spectacular tails visible from Earth. (Here’s more detail on the difference between a comet and an asteroid.)
“Imagine all these asteroids going around the Sun for aeons, with no hint of activity,” stated Ignacio Ferrín, who led the research and is a part of the University of Antioquia in Colombia.
“We have found that some of these are not dead rocks after all, but are dormant comets that may yet come back to life if the energy that they receive from the Sun increases by a few per cent.”
The team believes this zone was far more active millions of years ago, but as the population got older they got more quiet.
“Twelve of those rocks are true comets that were rejuvenated after their minimum distance from the Sun was reduced a little,” the researchers stated.
“The little extra energy they received from the Sun was then sufficient to revive them from the graveyard.”
The Dawn science team has released two spectacular rotation movies of the entire globe of the giant asteroid Vesta. The flyover videos give the distinct impression that you are standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and gazing at the view screen as the ship enters orbit about a new planet for the first time and are about to begin an exciting new journey of exploration and discovery of the body you’re looking at below.
Thanks to NASA, DLR, ASI and Dawn’s international science and engineering team, we can all join the away team on the expedition to unveil Vesta’s alluring secrets.
Click the start button and watch protoplanet Vesta’s striking surface moving beneath from the perspective of Dawn flying above – in the initial survey orbit at an altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles). Vesta is the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt and Dawn’s first scientific conquest.
Another video below was compiled from images taken earlier on July 24, 2011 from a higher altitude after Dawn first achieved orbit about Vesta and revealed that the northern and southern hemispheres are totally different.
The array of images in the videos was snapped by Dawn’s framing camera which was provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The team then created a shape model from the images, according to Dr. Carol Raymond, Dawn’s Deputy Principal Investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The shape model will aid in studying Vesta’s strikingly diverse features of mountains, ridges, valley’s, scarps, cliffs, grooves, craters, even a ‘snowman’ and much more.
Notice that not all of Vesta is illuminated – because it’s northern winter at the asteroid. Vesta has seasons like Earth and the northern polar region in now in perpetual darkness. Data is collected over the day side and radioed back to Earth over the night side.
“On Vesta right now, the southern hemisphere is facing the sun, so everywhere between about 52 degrees north latitude and the north pole is in a long night,” says Dr. Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer from JPL. “That ten percent of the surface is presently impossible to see. Because Dawn will stay in orbit around Vesta as together they travel around the sun, in 2012 it will be able to see some of this hidden scenery as the seasons advance.”
Another movie highlight is a thorough look at the gigantic south pole impact basin. The circular feature is several hundred miles wide and may have been created by a cosmic collision eons ago that excavated massive quantities of material and basically left Vesta lacking a south pole.
The massive feature was discovered in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope several years ago and mission scientists have been eager to study it up close in a way that’s only possible from orbit. Dawn’s three science instruments will investigate the south pole depression in detail by collecting high resolution images and spectra which may reveal the interior composition of Vesta.
Dawn entered the survey orbit on Aug. 11 and completed seven revolutions of 69 hours each on Sept. 1. It transmitted more than 2,800 pictures from the DLR framing camera covering the entire illuminated surface and also collected over three million visible and infrared spectra from the VIR spectrometer – provided by ASI, the Italian Space Agency. This results exceeded the mission objectives.
The Dawn spacecraft is now spiraling down closer using its ion propulsion system to the next mapping orbit – known as HAMO – four times closer than the survey orbit and only some 680 km (420 miles) above the surface.
Juno lifted off 25 days ago at 12: 25 p.m. on August 5 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft snapped the portrait with the onboard JunoCam camera on August 26 after journeying some 6 million miles (9.66 million km) from Earth and while traveling at a velocity of 77,600 miles per hour (124,900 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.
“The image of the Earth Moon system is a rather unique perspective that we can get only by stepping outside of our home planet,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Bolton is from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“On our way to Jupiter, we’ve looked back at home and managed to take this amazing image.”
“Earth looking much like any other planet or star from a distance is glorious as this somewhat average looking “star” is home to all of humanity. Our companion, the moon, so beautiful and important to us, stands out even less.”
“We appear almost average and inconspicuous, yet all of our history originates here. It makes one wonder just how many other planets or solar systems might contain life like ours,” Bolton told me.
The Juno team commanded the probe to take the image as part of the checkout phase of the vehicles instruments and subsystems.
“The JunoCam instrument turn on and check out were planned activities. The instrument is working great and in fact, all the instruments that we’ve turned on thus far have been working great,” Bolton added.
So far the spacecraft is in excellent health and the team has completed the checkout of the Waves instrument and its two Flux Gate Magnetometer sensors and deployment of its V-shaped electric dipole antenna.
“We have a couple more instruments still to do,” Bolton noted.
The team reports that Juno also performed its first precession, or reorientation maneuver, using its thrusters and that the first trajectory control maneuver (TCM-1) was cancelled as unnecessary because of the extremely accurate targeting provided by the Atlas V rocket.
The portrait shot is actually not Juno’s last photo of her home.
The 8000 pound (3,600 kilogram) probe will fly by Earth once more on October 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted speed boost of 16,330 MPH (7.3 km/sec) to accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system.
JunoCam will collect new photos and the other science instruments will make measurements as Juno cartwheels past Earth during the slingshot to Jupiter.
Juno is on a 5 year and 1.7 Billion mile (2.8 Billion km) trek to the largest planet in our solar system. When she arrives at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, Juno will become the first polar orbiting spacecraft at the gas giant.
During a one year science mission – entailing 33 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles (5000 km) of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution.
The goal is to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core.
“This is a remarkable sight people get to see all too rarely,” said Bolton in a NASA statement about the Earth-Moon photo. “This view of our planet shows how Earth looks from the outside, illustrating a special perspective of our role and place in the universe. We see a humbling yet beautiful view of ourselves.”
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Juno mission. The spacecraft was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.
NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter is now spiraling down ever closer to the protoplanet Vesta – since arriving on July 16 – and capturing magnificent new high resolution images of the huge impact basin at the South Pole that dominates the surface. See enhanced image here.
The Dawn team just released a new image taken by the framing camera on July 18 as the orbiter flew from the day side to the night side at an altitude of 10,500 kilometers above Vesta, the second most massive body in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“I find this picture very dramatic !” exclaimed Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in an interview with Universe Today.
“Dawn acquired this image after it had flown past the terminator and its orbit began taking it over the night side of Vesta.”
“After having this view, the spacecraft resumed gradually spiraling around its new home, heading for survey orbit where it will begin intensive observations of Vesta,” Rayman told me.
Dawn will reach the initial science survey orbit in early August, approximately 1700 miles above the battered surface. Vesta turns on its axis once very five hours and 20 minutes.
Vesta suffered an enormous cosmic collision eons ago that apparently created a gigantic impact basin in the southern hemisphere and blasted enormous quantities of soil, rocks and dust into space. Some 5% of all meteorites found on Earth originate from Vesta.
“The south pole region was declared to be a large impact basin after the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) data and images were obtained,” elaborated Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn Principal Investigator from UCLA.
“Now that we have higher resolution images we see that this region is unlike any other large impact on a small body but much of our experience here is on icy bodies of similar size,” Russell told me.
Dawn’s new images of Vesta taken at close range from just a few thousand miles away, now vastly exceed those taken by Hubble as it circled in Earth orbit hundreds of millions of miles away and may cause the science team to reevaluate some long held theories.
“The team is looking forward to obtaining higher resolution data over this region to look for confirmatory evidence for the impact hypothesis. They are not yet willing to vote for or against the HST interpretation. Needless to say the team got very excited by this image,” said Russell.
Dawn will orbit Vesta for one year before heading to its final destination, the Dwarf Planet Ceres.
NASA’s super exciting Dawn mission to the Asteroid Belt marked a major milestone in human history by becoming the first ever spacecraft from Planet Earth to achieve orbit around a Protoplanet – Vesta – on July 16. Dawn was launched in September 2007 and was 117 million miles (188 million km) distant from Earth as it was captured by Asteroid Vesta.
Dawn’s achievements thus far have already exceeded the wildest expectations of the science and engineering teams, and the adventure has only just begun ! – so say Dawn’s Science Principal Investigator Prof. Chris Russell, Chief Engineer Dr. Marc Rayman (think Scotty !) and NASA’s Planetary Science Director Jim Green in exclusive new interviews with Universe Today.
As you read these words, Dawn is steadily unveiling new Vesta vistas never before seen by a human being – and in ever higher resolution. And it’s only made possible via the revolutionary and exotic ion propulsion thrusters propelling Dawn through space (think Star Trek !). That’s what NASA, science and space exploration are all about.
“Dawn is in orbit, remains in good health and is continuing to perform all of its functions,” Marc Rayman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., told me. “Indeed, that is how we know it achieved orbit. The confirmation received in a routine communications session that it has continued thrusting is all we needed.”
Dawn entered orbit at about 9900 miles (16000 km) altitude after a nearly 4 year journey of 1.73 billion miles.
Over the next few weeks, the spacecrafts primary task is to gradually spiral down to its initial science operations orbit, approximately 1700 miles above the pock marked surface.
Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn is the first probe to orbit an object in the Asteroid Belt.
I asked Principal Investigator Chris Russell from UCLA for a status update on Dawn and to describe what the team can conclude from the images and data collected thus far.
“The Dawn team is really, really excited right now,” Russell replied.
“This is what we have been planning now for over a decade and to finally be in orbit around our first ‘protoplanet’ is fantastic.”
“The images exceed my wildest dreams. The terrain both shows the stress on the Vestan surface exerted by 4.5 billion years of collisions while preserving evidence [it seems] of what may be internal processes. The result is a complex surface that is very interesting and should be very scientifically productive.”
“The team is looking at our low resolution images and trying to make preliminary assessments but the final answers await the higher resolution data that is still to come.”
Russell praised the team and described how well the spacecraft was operating.
“The flight team has been great on this project and deserves a lot of credit for getting us to Vesta EARLY and giving us much more observation time than we had planned,” Russell told me.
“And they have kept the spacecraft healthy and the instruments safe. Now we are ready to work in earnest on our science observations.”
Dawn will remain in orbit at Vesta for one year. Then it will fire its ion thrusters and head for the Dwarf Planet Ceres – the largest object in the Asteroid Belt. Dawn will then achieve another major milestone and become the first spacecraft ever to orbit two celestial objects.
Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA HQ in Washington, DC, summed up his feelings about Dawn in this way;
“Getting Dawn into orbit is an amazing achievement,” Green told me.
“Instead of the ‘fire the thrusters full blast’ we just sort of slid into orbit letting gravity grab the spacecraft with a light tug. This gives us great confidence that the big challenge down the road of getting into orbit around Ceres can also be accomplished just as easily.”
Sharper new images from Vesta will be published by NASA in the next day or so.
“We did take a few navigation images in this last sequence and when they get through processing they should be put on the web this week,” Russell informed. “These images are from a similar angle to the last set and with somewhat better resolution and will not reveal much new.”
However, since Dawn is now orbiting Vesta our upcoming view of the protoplanet will be quite different from what we’ve seen in the approach images thus far.
“We will be changing views in the future as the spacecraft begins to climb into its science orbit,” stated Russell.
“This may reveal new features on the surface as well as giving us better resolution. So stay tuned.”
Marc Rayman explained how and why Dawn’s trajectory is changing from equatorial to polar:
“Now that we are close enough to Vesta for its gravity to cause a significant curvature in the trajectory, our view is beginning to change,” said Rayman. “That will be evident in the pictures taken now and in the near future, as the spacecraft arcs north over the dark side and then orbits back to the south over the illuminated side.”
“The sun is over the southern hemisphere right now,” added Russell. “When we leave we are hoping to see it shine in the north.”
Dawn is an international mission with significant participation from Germany and Italy. The navigation images were taken by Dawn’s framing cameras which were built in Germany.
Exploring Vesta is like studying a fossil from the distant past that will immeasurably increase our knowledge of the beginnings of our solar system and how it evolved over time.
Vesta suffered a cosmic collision at the south pole in the distant past that Dawn can now study at close range.
“For now we are viewing a fantastic asteroid, seeing it up close as we zero in on its southern hemisphere, looking at the huge central peak, and wondering how it got there,” explained Jim Green
“We know Vesta was nearly spherical at one time. Then a collision in its southern hemisphere occurred blowing off an enormous amount of material where a central peak now remains.”
That intriguing peak is now obvious in the latest Dawn images from Vesta. But what does it mean and reveal ?
“We wonder what is that peak? replied Green. “Is it part of the core exposed?
“Was it formed as a result of the impact or did it arise from volcanic action?”
“The Dawn team hopes to answer these questions. I can’t wait!” Green told me.
As a result of that ancient south pole collision, about 5% of all the meteorites found on Earth actually originate from Vesta.
Keep your eyes glued to Dawn as mysterious Vesta’s alluring secrets are unveiled.
A new world in our Solar System is about to be unveiled for the first time – the mysterious protoplanet Vesta, which is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
NASA’s Dawn Asteroid orbiter has entered its final approach phase to Vesta and for the first time is snapping images that finally exceed those taken several years ago by the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.
“The Dawn science campaign at Vesta will unveil a mysterious world, an object that can tell us much about the earliest formation of the planets and the solar system,” said Jim Adams, Deputy Director, Planetary Science Directorate at NASA HQ at a briefing for reporters.
Vesta holds a record of the earliest history of the solar system. The protoplanet failed to form into a full planet due to its close proximity to Jupiter.
Check out this amazing NASA approach video showing Vesta growing in Dawn’s eyes. The compilation of navigation images from Dawn’s framing camera spans about seven weeks from May 3 to June 20 was released at the NASA press briefing by the Dawn science team.
Dawn’s Approach to Vesta – Video
Best View from Hubble – Video
Be sure to notice that Vesta’s south pole is missing due to a cataclysmic event eons ago that created a massive impact crater – soon to be unveiled in astounding clarity. Some of that colossal debris sped toward Earth and survived the terror of atmospheric entry. Planetary Scientists believe that about 5% of all known meteorites originated from Vesta, based on spectral evidence.
After a journey of four years and 1.7 billion miles, NASA’s revolutionary Dawn spacecraft thrusting via exotic ion propulsion is now less than 95,000 miles distant from Vesta, shaping its path through space to match the asteroid.
The internationally funded probe should be captured into orbit on July 16 at an initial altitude of 9,900 miles when Vesta is some 117 million miles from Earth.
After adjustments to lower Dawn to an initial reconnaissance orbit of approximately 1,700 miles, the science campaign is set to kick off in August with the collection of global color images and spectral data including compositional data in different wavelengths of reflected light.
Dawn will spend a year investigating Vesta. It will probe the protoplanet using its three onboard science instruments – provided by Germany, Italy and the US – and provide researchers with the first bird’s eye images, global maps and detailed scientific measurements to elucidate the chemical composition and internal structure of a giant asteroid.
“Navigation images from Dawn’s framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we’re looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “We can’t wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system.”
Because Dawn is now so close to Vesta, the frequency of imaging will be increased to twice a week to achieve the required navigational accuracy to successfully enter orbit., according to Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“By the beginning of August, it will see Vesta with more than 100 times the clarity that Hubble could ever obtain,” says Rayman.
Dawn will gradually edge down closer to altitudes of 420 miles and 120 miles to obtain ever higher resolution orbital images and spectal data before spiraling back out and eventually setting sail for Ceres, the largest asteroid of them all.
Dawn will be the first spacecraft to orbit two celestial bodies, only made possible via the ion propulsion system. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it’s the largest planetary mission NASA has ever launched.
“We’ve packed our year at Vesta chock-full of science observations to help us unravel the mysteries of Vesta,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at JPL.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity to spend a year at a body that we know almost nothing about,” added Raymond. “We are very interested in the south pole because the impact exposed the deep interior of Vesta. We’ll be able to look at features down to tens of meters so we can decipher the geologic history of Vesta.”
NASA’s revolutionary Dawn Asteroid Orbiter has begun the final approach phase to the giant asteroid Vesta and snapped its first science image. The image was taken on May 3, when Dawn was approximately 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) distant from Vesta using the science imager known as the Framing Camera.
Besides the pure delight of seeing Vesta up close for the first time, the images play a crucial role in navigating Dawn precisely through space and successfully achieve orbit around the protoplanet that nearly formed into a full fledged planet.
Vesta is the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt and is 530 kilometers (330 miles) in diameter.
Dawn should be captured into orbit about Vesta around July 16 as the engineering team works to maneuver the spacecraft to match the asteroids path around the sun using the exotic ion thrusters. Using the background stars in the framing camera images, they will be able to determine Dawn’s location in space relative to the stars in order to precisely navigate the spacecrafts trajectory towards Vesta.
“After plying the seas of space for more than a billion miles, the Dawn team finally spotted its target,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This first image hints of detailed portraits to come from Dawn’s upcoming visit.”
The best images of Vesta to date were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Jim Adams, Deputy Director of Planetary Science, told me that the images from Dawn’s Framing Camera will exceed those from Hubble in a few weeks.
Dawn will initially enter a highly elliptical polar orbit around Vesta and start collecting science data in August from an altitude of approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). The orbit will be lowered in stages to collect high resolution data as Dawn spends about a year collecting data from its three science instruments.
Thereafter Dawn will be targeted to Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt which it will reach in 2015.
Dawn is an international mission.
The framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR, and NASA.
The Visible and Infrared mapping camera was provided by the Italian Space Agency. The Gamma Ray Detector was supplied by Los Alamos National Labotatory.
The huge solar-powered Juno spacecraft will skim to within 4800 kilometers (3000 miles) of the cloud tops of Jupiter to study the origin and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet. Understanding the mechanism of how Jupiter formed will lead to a better understanding of the origin of planetary systems around other stars throughout our galaxy.
Juno will be spinning like a windmill as it fly’s in a highly elliptical polar orbit and investigates the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere with a suite of nine science instruments.
During the five year cruise to Jupiter, the 3,600 kilogram probe will fly by Earth once in 2013 to pick up speed and accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system where it arrives in July 2016.
Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.
The mission will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and is set to last approximately one year. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.
Juno was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and air shipped in a protective shipping container inside the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet to the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla.
This week the spacecraft begins about four months of final functional testing and integration inside the climate controlled clean room and undergoes a thorough verification that all its systems are healthy. Other processing work before launch includes attachment of the long magnetometer boom and solar arrays which arrived earlier.
Juno is the first solar powered probe to be launched to the outer planets and operate at such a great distance from the sun. Since Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, Juno will carry three giant solar panels, each spanning more than 20 meters (66 feet) in length. They will remain continuously in sunlight from the time they are unfurled after launch through the end of the mission.
“The Juno spacecraft and the team have come a long way since this project was first conceived in 2003,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “We’re only a few months away from a mission of discovery that could very well rewrite the books on not only how Jupiter was born, but how our solar system came into being.”
Juno is slated to launch aboard the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters – from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 5. The launch window extends through August 26. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will follow Juno to the Atlas launch pad, and is scheduled to liftoff in late November 2011. Read my stories about Curiosity here and here.
Because of cuts to NASA’s budget by politicians in Washington, the long hoped for mission to investigate the Jovian moon Europa may be axed, along with other high priority science missions. Europa may harbor subsurface oceans of liquid water and is a prime target in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.
The Dawn spacecraft – which is on a course to study the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres – has taken up permanent residence in the asteroid belt as of November 13th. Dawn is officially the first human-made object to become a part of the asteroid belt, which is sandwiched between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.Dawn didn’t move in without checking the place out first, though; this is the second visit for the craft, which remained there for 40 days in June of 2008. The lower boundary of the asteroids belt is defined as the furthest Mars gets away from the Sun during its orbit – 249,230,000 kilometers, or 154,864,000 miles.
Dawn, which was launched in September 2007, is on an eight-year, 4.9-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey to study the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. By studying these members of the asteroid belt, NASA scientists hope to learn more about the formation of our Solar System. Because Vesta and Ceres are some of the largest members of the ring of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, they are the most intact from when they were formed, and should act as a ‘time capsule’ to preserve information about what the early Solar System was like.
Dawn got a gravity assist from Mars in February of 2009, which propelled it past the planet and into the asteroid belt.
The spacecraft is expected to visit Vesta in August of 2011. Vesta is believed to be the source of most of the asteroid-origin meteorites that fall to ground here on Earth, and further study of the asteroid should confirm this.
In May of 2012, Dawn will make its way to Ceres, which lies further out in the asteroid belt. It will arrive there in July of 2015, where it will spend the remainder of its mission studying the icy dwarf planet, which may even have a tenuous atmosphere.
If you want to keep tabs on Dawn in its new home, the mission web site has a tool updated hourly, found here, which allows you to see where Dawn is right now. The tool includes simulated views of the Earth, Mars, Sun and Vesta from the vantage point of the spacecraft.