Cassini, MESSENGER, and MOM: A Space Probe Odyssey

Cassini_Saturn_Orbit_InsertionIt had has been a big month in the field of space probes and satellites. Whether they are in orbit around Mercury, on their way to Mars, or floating in the outer Solar System, there’s been no shortage of news and inspirational footage to be had. And it is a testament to the age we live in, where space news is accessible and can instantly be shared with millions of people around the world.

First up, there’s the recent release of Cassini’s magnificent image of Saturn’s rings shining in all their glory. Back in July, Cassini got a good look back at Earth from about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. Known as
“The Day The Earth Smiled”, NASA has spent the past few months cobbling together this picture from numerous shots taken during Cassini’s circuitous orbit around Saturn.

cassini-jupiter-annotatedCassini has always been able to take impressive pictures in Earth’s general direction, but this picture was special since it used the enormous bulk of Saturn to block the usually confounding brightness of the Sun. Cassini, which was launched to survey the outer planets in 1997, captured an absolutely incredible image of both the Earth as a pale blue dot, and of Saturn as a striking, luminous apparition.

As part of NASA’s latest awareness campaign, which tried to get everyday citizens to smile at the sky for the first posed interplanetary photo most of us have ever experienced, the photo captured the halo effect that makes our sixth planet look truly breathtaking. In the annotated version (pictured above), you can also see Venus, Mars, and some of Saturn’s moons.


Next up, there’s the MESSENGER probe, which managed to capture these impressive new videos of Mercury’s surface. As part of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) ride-along imaging campaign, these videos were captured using the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). Even though the original high-res images were captured four seconds apart, these videos have been sped up to a rate of 15 images per second.


The views in each video are around 144-178 km (90-110 miles) across. The large crater visible in the beginning of the second video is the 191-km (118-mile) wide Schubert basin. In related news, there are new maps of Mercury available on the US Geological Survey website! Thanks to MESSENGER we now have the entirety of the first planet from the Sun imaged and mapped.

MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in August of 2004 and established orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011. It was the first man-made spacecraft ever to do so, and has provided the most comprehensive mapping of Mercury to date, not to mention evidence of ice, organic molecules, and detailed conditions on the surface.

India_Mars_Orbiter1And last, but not least, there was the recent launch of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) new Mars Orbiter Mission (aka. MOM). The launch took place on Tuesday, November 5th from the Indian space port located on a small island in the Bay of Bengal. As the nation’s first attempt to reach the Red Planet, the aim of the $70 million mission goes beyond mere research.

In addition to gathering information that might indicate if life has ever existed or could exist on Mars, the mission is also meant to showcase India’s growing prowess in the field of space and to jump ahead of its regional rival (China) in the big interplanetary march. As Pallava Bagla, one of India’s best known science commentators, put it:

In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China. There is a lot of national pride involved in this.

India Mars probeIn addition, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the missionw as designed to stimulate national pride in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis. In recent years, a plunging currency, ailing economy and the state’s seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the last decade.

MOM is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24th, 2014 where it will assume an elliptical orbit around the planet and begin conducting atmospheric surveys. If all continues to goes well, India will the elite club of only four nations that have launched probes which successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

India_Mars_Orbiter2MOM was also the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes that left Earth and began heading for Mars this November. The second was NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which launched on November 18th atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. MAVEN is slated to arrive just two days before MOM, and research efforts will be coordinated between the two agencies.

Much like MAVEN, MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current state and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water were lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state it is in today. In addition to aiding our scientific understanding of the world, it may help us to transform the planet into a liveable environment once again.

For many people, these developments are an indication of things to come. If humanity ever intends to become an interplanetary species, an expanding knowledge of our Solar System is an absolute prerequisite. And in many respects, making other planets our home may be the only way we can survive as a species, given our current rate of population growth and consumption.

Sources: extremetech.com, nasa.gov, universetoday.com, planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov, theguardian.com, www.isro.org

More News from Mars… Lots More!

marsIt’s a good thing I’ve come down with a cold and have little to do but sit at my computer. Because in the last week, some very interesting news stories have been piling up that just scream for recognition. And wouldn’t you know it, more than a few have to do with our big red neighbor Mars, that world many human beings will one day think of as home.

The first story comes to us from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, where noted astronomer Robert McNaught recently sighted an new comet. From his observations, the icy interloper appeared to have originated in the Oort Cloud – a hypothetical cloud surrounding the solar system and containing billions of icy planetesimals that were cast out from our Solar System billions of years ago.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014After news of the discovery was released, the astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of the comet – now known as C/2013 A1 – through the orbit of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. This means, in essence, that this comet could very well strike the Red Planet late next year.

Luckily, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has run the calculations and indicated that their close approach data suggests the comet is most likely to make a close pass of the Martian surface. And by close, they mean at roughly 0.0007 AU, or approximately 100,000 kilometers (63,000 miles) from the Martian surface. So in all likelihood, Curiosity and Opportunity will be safe from a serious impact that could turn them into scrap metal!

But of course, predicting its exact trajectory at this time is subject to guess work, and ongoing observations will be needed. No doubt, the predictions will be refined a the next 20 months go by, and we’ll know for sure if this comet plans to miss Mars completely, or slam head-on into the surface at 200,000 km/h (126,000 mph).

Source: news.discover.com, astroblogger.blogspot.ca

Mars_curiosity_drillingThe second bit of news comes to us from the good-ole Curiosity Rover! Roughly four weeks after conducting the first drilling operation into the Martian surface, the Rover ate its first sample of the grey dust that resulted. The delivery of the two aspiring-sized tablets of dust took place on Feb. 22nd and 23rd respectively after the robotic arm delivered them into the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratories for analysis. Results expected in two weeks!

Among other things, the results from the analysis are expected to give clues as to what the color change between the red surface and the grey interior means. One theory is that it might be related to different oxidations states of iron that could potentially inform us about the habitability of Mars inside the rover’s Gale Crater landing site.

Living-Mars.2At the same time, the Mars Science Laboratory team expects to find further evidence of what life was like in previous geological eras. The Curiosity team believes that the area inside the Gale Crater, known as Yellowknife Bay, experienced repeated exposure to flowing liquid water long ago when Mars was warmer and wetter – and therefore was potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life.

The rover will likely remain in the John Klein area for a month or more to obtain a more complete scientific characterization of the area which has seen repeated episodes of flowing water. Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a year long trek to her main destination: the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp.

Source: universetoday.com

mars_hieroglyphsAnd last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination, is the discovery of “hieroglyphs” on the Martian surface. While they might appear like ancient glyphs to the untrained eye, they are in fact evidence of past subsurface water. The images were caught by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed the surface area known as Amazonis Planitia.

Known as ‘rootless cones,’ these geological features are the result of an explosive interaction of lava with ground ice or water contained within the regolith beneath the flow. Vaporization of the water or ice when the hot lava comes in contact causes an explosive expansion of the water vapor, causing the lava to shoot upward, creating what appears to be a button hole on the surface.

rootlessConesIn the past, Mars scientists have used geological patterns on Earth to make sense of similar ones found on Mars. For example, when the Curiosity Rover discovered veins of hydrated calcium in the rock surface in the Gale Crater, they compared them to similar patterns found in Egypt to determine that they were the result of long-term exposure to water flows. In this case, the rootless cones found in Amazonis Planitia are comparable to those found in Iceland’s Laki Lava Flow (as seen above).

According to Colin Dunas, from the US Geological Survey, the cones are rather large and most likely very old:

“The cones are on the order of a hundred meters across and ten meters high. The age of these specific cones isn’t known. They are on a mid- to late-Amazonian geologic unit, which means that they are young by Martian standards but could be as much as a few hundred million to over a billion years old.”

terraformingOnly time will tell if any subsurface water is still there, and hence usable by future teams of terraformers and settlers. According to Dundas, the odds are not so good of that being the case. Given the surface depth at which the ice was found, not to mention that at the low latitude at which it was found (22 degrees north), shallow ground ice is unstable. Dundas added that since ice stability varies as the obliquity changes, it’s even possible that ice has come and gone repeatedly since the lava erupted.

Too bad. That could have come in really handy for hydroponics, fuel cells, and even restoring surface water to the planet. Guess future generations of Martians will just have to look for their ground and irrigation water elsewhere, huh? Just another challenge of converting the Red Planet to a green one, I guess 😉

Stay tuned for more news Mars. As it stands, there’s plenty to be had! Stick around!

Source: hirise.lpl.arizona.edu, universetoday.com