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Of Planets, Comets And Amazing Discoveries
It's a time of technology, of scientific advancement and of ambitious space missions, just because we have questions.
We've all heard of Sputnik, Telstar, Voyager and Hubble. We've all seen the phenomenal spectacle (and sound) of a Shuttle taking off with a new module for the awesome International Space Station, but there are currently a number of missions running that are doing great science, yet receive less publicity.
"It's a shame that space exploration has become so routine!"
Is it a sign of the times? Do we not care about space anymore because there are so many problems down here on planet Earth we need to deal with? Well, whatever your philosophical thinking, I wanted to tell you about some of the current missions that I get excited about:
Messenger - Visiting the innermost planet
The Messenger probe, launched by NASA, faced some interesting challenged. It was going to our innermost planet Mercury and we really didn't know what was going to happen when it got there. Scientists have looked through telescopes at Mercury and it's had a couple of flypasts by Mariner 10, but this time we were going to put something in orbit for an extended period. Would it survive?
Well yes, Messenger not only got there, but it completed it mission and sent back thousands of stereo photographs of the surface (so we could map the topology) and a ton of science from its on board instruments. Then, once it ran out of fuel, we crashed it into the surface and made our own little crater for posterity. Well, it wasn't as if we could bring it back and recycle it!
What did we discover about Mercury then? Well lots actually, but my highlights would have to be the comet craters on the surface (the sun tore them apart and they'd pummel Mercury in a chain), that Mercury has a very, very thin crust so must have been hit by something big to leave just the core behind and that its magnetic field is offset to one side of the planet by 10%! How utterly amazing is that?
Rosetta & Philae - Comet Chasing
Rosetta was launched 11 years ago and used flybys of Earth and Mars to gain speed via a gravity assist. The probe and it's passenger needed to be travelling quickly because it had to track down a comet! Now, we've had comet missions before, but none whilst the comet was still out near Jupiter's orbit so wasn't outgassing or falling apart because of the gravity of our Sun.
We got a crystal clear look at what turned out to be something shaped like a rubber duck! Maybe two comets connected by a pile of rubble that then fell out of orbit together? Who knows?
And then we launched the plucky little lander Philae at it! What an amazing achievement. Ok, it landed, bounced, landed again, bounced a little more then ended up at the foot of a cliff on it's side, but it still worked! Hours and hours of data came streaming back via the mothership in orbit.
Then, as it's solar panels weren't getting enough light, Philae went to sleep, but not before every onboard experiment had been run at least once. Will it wake up as it gets closer to the sun as the light gets stronger or will some cometary outgassing blow our little hero out into space again?
Dawn - Checking out some dwarf planets
This one really excites me. A little closer to home and NASA's Dawn probe navigated its way through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, found Vesta which turned out to be a rocky body, orbited that for a while doing some great science, then headed off to Ceres to take a look at that too.
The exciting thing about Ceres is that there's something highly reflective on the surface. A bunch of bright white, cold spots clustered together. Is it just ice caused when a small asteroid crashed into Ceres and blew some of the surface away, or is it a crashed alien spaceship? Who knows, but I'm sure we'll find out!
We're not quite close enough to see clearly yet, but Dawn's orbit will take it lower and lower in the coming months and we'll get a really good look. Imagine if it was a crashed spaceship? I wonder how long it would be before we sent humans to go take a look? I bet the governments of the world would suddenly find the money to get there!
New Horizons - A high speed flypast of Pluto
This amazing little probe called New Horizons is currently the fastest object we've ever created. Through its own engines and various gravity assists from the inner planets, New Horizons has made it all the way out past Neptune and about to encounter Pluto.
It's still not quite there yet, but it's already discovered a number of new moons so scientists are refining its course as it gets closer and closer. What will it see? Will Pluto turn out to be a proper planet orbited by proper moons like Charon, or will it just be a pile of rocks with other rocks about to fall onto it? We don't know yet, but we will soon!
We can't slow New Horizons enough to put it in orbit around Pluto so it's going to carry on towards the Kuiper Belt, then the Oort Cloud and eventually right out into interstellar space where it will join its ancestor Voyager and quite probably overtake it!
Opportunity - ten years on Mars and still trundling along!
I can't wrap up this blog post without talking about Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. All Martian rovers, lead by the tiny Sojourner, the first ever rover we landed on the Red Planet. Curiosity is sometimes called a 'nuclear powered tank' as it rumbles around both day and night, discovering more about Mars' watery past.
What amazes me the most is the rover Opportunity has been trundling around Mars for years and years. Even though it's sister Spirit is dead and Opportunity itself is getting a little geriatric, in need of constant TLC from controllers on Earth, it's still doing great science! It's also set a record for the longest rover journey with 39Km completed.
Considering this is a solar-powered machine and the Martian atmosphere is full of dust, it is simply fantastic that this amazing machine - that we created right here on Earth - is still rolling! Did you know that Mars is the only planet we know of that's entirely populated by robots?
Oh! I could go on and on for hours about our fleet of incredible space probes, landers and rovers. We learn from each generation we fly and then refine and enhance with better electronics, more onboard experiments and higher resolution cameras.
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