The autumn nights have Red Mars and yellow Saturn shining bright in the southern skies on each side of the setting Milky Way. As you look up, just imagine these worlds in a new perspective through the eyes of the man-made spacecraft orbiting them.
Strap into my virtual rocket, Starship Q, and get a look at the active earthly robots in our Solar System. These are just a sample, as new unmanned spaceships are headed to Mars, Mercury and the Sun! Ready for blast off? Let’s go!
Six orbiters and two rovers are currently active at the Red Planet. The incredible 14-year mission of golf cart-sized rover Opportunity is in jeopardy as a four-month, global dust storm shut down the power supply—its solar panels. Opportunity went into a safe mode, but now that the dust storm has cleared, it still won’t phone home. If the predicted Martian winds of November don’t clean off the solar panels, Opportunity, guaranteed to last for 90 days when it landed in 2004, might join its twin, Spirit, which succumbed after 8 years to power failure in 2012. Planetary scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, have their fingers crossed.
Other active spacecraft orbiting or on the surface of Mars includes the oldest active since 2001, Mars Odyssey. A tribute to the classic novel and film, NASA’s Odyssey is continuing its extended mission to map the surface of Mars and also acts as a relay for the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers.
Europe’s Mars Express arrived in December 2003 to study the planet’s atmosphere and geology, and search for sub-surface water. Mangalyaan is the first Indian interplanetary space probe. It was successfully inserted into orbit of Mars on 24 September 2014.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the second NASA satellite orbiting Mars. It is specifically designed to analyze the landforms, stratigraphy, minerals, and ice of the red planet. It has been orbiting since March 2006. The Curiosity rover, the size of an SUV car, landed on Mars in August 2012. It is searching for evidence of organic material on Mars, monitoring methane levels in the atmosphere, and engaging in exploration of the landing site at Gale Crater.
Another NASA orbiter since September 2014 is called MAVEN — Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution. European Space Agency also has an orbiter analyzing the ancient and very thin atmosphere of Mars, Trace Gas Orbiter (ExoMars 2016), which arrived safely at Mars in November 2016. Both probes have detected the traces of a more robust atmosphere like Earth’s today, but existing on Mars 2 billion years ago.
Next stop on “Rocket Q”…the KUIPER BELT:
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made its first detection of its next flyby target, the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, less than 20 miles wide and four billion miles away for its New Year’s 2019 close encounter shortly after midnight. Mission team members were thrilled that New Horizons’ telescopic camera was able to see the 19-mile-diameter object while still more than 100 million miles away. The Ultima flyby will be the first-ever close-up exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history, shattering the record New Horizons itself set at Pluto in July 2015 by about 1 billion miles.
With substantial public input, the Jet Propulsion Lab team chose the name “Ultima Thule” (pronounced ultima too-lee”). Officially known as 2014 MU69 this chunk of the early Solar System orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto. Ultima Thule will be the most primitive world ever observed by spacecraft – in the farthest planetary encounter in history.
Thule was a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography. Ultima Thule means “beyond Thule”– beyond the borders of the known world—symbolizing the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never done.
NASA’s Juno has been in a polar orbit of the giant planet Jupiter since July 2016. Now in its 17th looping orbit that goes from 1.5 million miles to just 10,000 miles from the incredible cloud tops, astronomers are seeing Jupiter in a different way than the Galileo orbiter in the 1990s. After completing its mission in a few years, Juno will be intentionally deorbited into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Last Stop…ASTEROIDS AND COMETS:
Dawn is a space probe launched by NASA in September 2007 and has orbited two protoplanets of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. It is currently in orbit about its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies, orbiting Vesta in July 2011 for 14 months, then flying for two years to rendezvous and orbit dwarf planet Ceres in March 2015. With its hydrazine fuel running out, Dawn will become unstable to continue photography and science. So it is making its final orbits of Ceres just 22 miles above its surface.
A spaceship called Hayabusa2 is an asteroid sample-return mission operated by the Japanese space agency, JAXA, and targeting asteroid 162173 Ryuga. A mile long, Ryuga is a primitive carbonaceous, near-Earth asteroid predicted to preserve the most pristine materials in the Solar System, a mixture of minerals, ice, and organic compounds. So far two miniature landers the size of Roomba floor cleaner have been hopping around Ryuga as Hayabusa2 lowers its orbit to blast comet fragments in a cone trap for return to Earth in 2020.
And back at HOME:
The truly amazing Internet can take you to the latest images and discoveries. You know what to do: Google, Firefox, Chrome, Siri or Alexia and you’ll be seeing the same imagery the planetary scientist are working with. You’ll soon realize that real science is cooler than anything you can make up!