Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's in Space...More than you think

ISS and Shuttle with Trees

ISS and Shuttle With Trees by Mully410

I love astronomy and space stuff and try to brave the cold or the mosquitos a few times a year to gaze at the sky. I've been to Space Center Houston and have some pretty cool astronomy pics that I took with my little Sony DSC-W150. The other day, I had a conversation with a friend. The subject of space came up, as it usually does with this friend. We talked about the recent launch delay for the shuttle Discovery and the recent successful launch of the Kepler telescope. I mentioned a few other on-going missions that I knew about. I started thinking: How many extra-earth (is that proper grammar?) missions are going on right now? Here is a list, to the best of my knowledge, of all the cool space missions currently underway beyond earth's orbit with links for more information.

2001 Mars Odyssey: 2001 Mars Odyssey completed its mission objectives in August 2004: Originally sent to Mars to map its chemical composition. Odyssey officially began its extended mission on August 24, 2004. Its current objectives include serving as the primary communication relay for the Mars Exploration Rovers and collecting images for use in determining future landing sites.

Cassini-Huygens: The Cassini orbiter is designed and instrumented to perform in-depth study of the diverse phenomena in the Saturn system, including: Saturn itself; its giant, haze-shrouded moon Titan; the dynamic rings and their embedded moonlets; and the icy satellites.

Dawn: Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter circles the main asteroid belt, remnants of the formation of the solar system, millions of rocky bodies with orbits too disturbed by the gravitational pull of Jupiter for them to coalesce into a single planet. Among these are a few big ones, protoplanets that started down the road to terrestrial planethood but failed to thrive. Ceres and Vesta are the most massive of the minor planets, and the Dawn mission aims to visit them both to discover what clues they may hold to how our solar system, and particularly the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), formed.

Deep Impact: One part of the Deep Impact spacecraft slammed into comet Tempel 1, ending its life with a smash, while the flyby spacecraft watched the birth of a new crater. An extended mission for Deep Impact, called EPOXI, has now been approved. In the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI), it will return to Earth for a flyby in December 2007, and use Earth's gravity to change course to encounter another comet, Jupiter-family comet 103P/Hartley 2, on October 11, 2010.

Hayabusa (MUSES-C): The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) MUSES-C / Hayabusa mission is the first to attempt to land on an asteroid, collect samples, and return them to Earth. It launched on May 9, 2003, onboard an MV-5 rocket, from the Uchinoura Launch Center in Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island, Japan, and headed on a 1-billion kilometer journey to an asteroid named for the "father" of Japan's space program, Hideo Itokawa.

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER): The twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) -- Spirit and Opportunity -- were designed to study the history of water on Mars at their landing sites and to uncover geologic clues about whether Mars had any environments wet enough in the past to have been hospitable to life. These guys are still working about 6 YEARS after their planned 90 day mission. Wow!

Mars Express: Mars Express has been studying the Martian atmosphere, surface, and subsurface, contributing new volumes to the knowledge base, with instruments contributed by England, France, Sweden, Germany, and Italy. Among its many accomplishments, the mission has confirmed water-ice at the south pole; returned intriguing measurements of methane in the atmosphere; and discovered the first auroras on Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO): Designed to examine the Red Planet in unprecedented detail from low orbit and provide more data about the intriguing planet than all previous missions combined, it launched on an Atlas V-401 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2005. Currently being used to relay communications for all the other Mars missions.

MESSENGER: Mercury is the least explored terrestrial planet; fully half of the little rocky world has never been seen up close. MESSENGER will change that, capturing a comprehensive survey of the planet's cratered and rocky surface, vaporous atmosphere, and inexplicable magnetic field using seven science instruments.

New Horizons: New Horizons, the first of NASA's "New Frontiers" missions, was launched into space on January 19, 2006 on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper belt.

Rosetta: The European Space Agency's Rosetta is the first mission to attempt orbiting a comet and delivering a lander to its surface. One of the most ambitious and complex robotic space projects ever undertaken...

SOHO: The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is an international project that is allowing solar scientists to study the Sun in depth, over the long term. Launched by an Atlas II from Cape Canaveral Air Station on December 2, 1995, the space observatory is still in operation, investigating everything from the Sun’s deep core to the solar wind, the stream of highly ionized gas that blows continuously outward through the solar system.

Spitzer Space Telescope: Spitzer, the last of NASA's "Great Observatories," provides scientists with infrared imagery of deep and normally inaccessible regions of space.

Stardust: On January 15, 2006 Stardust brought back to Earth something that scientists have never seen and never examined: dust samples taken directly from the coma surrounding a comet's nucleus. The Stardust spacecraft is now in solar orbit, and an extended mission has been approved: it will fly by comet Tempel 1 on February 14, 2011.

Ulysses: The first and only planned mission to orbit over and around the Sun to explore and chart the unknown reaches of its polar regions – is, along with SOHO and Cluster, giving scientists their first close-up look at the Sun.

Venus Express: Venus Express is Earth's first orbital mission to that planet since Magellan arrived in 1990. The mission's objectives are primarily to study the thick atmosphere of Venus, from the tops of its sulfuric acid clouds, to the searing heat and crushing pressure of the air at the surface.

Voyager: Together, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 -- twin probes launched on September 5, 1977 and August 20, 1977 -- represent the most successful planetary exploration mission of all time. In their flybys of all the outer planets except Pluto, and dozens of other planetary bodies, the Voyagers set the benchmark in planetary exploration on an undertaking that has come to be deemed as one of NASA's greatest triumphs. Even now, both Voyager spacecraft are still communicating with Earth. Many of their instruments are still functioning, as the two spacecraft head in different directions out of the solar system on their Interstellar Mission.

I picked missions beyond earth's orbit just so I didn't have list the dozens of missions around our fair planet and because they are far more difficult and cooler. I could have included all the current Moon missions, but I didn't because they sort of orbit Earth. Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and others not listed orbit Earth.

All the above links are courtesy of The Planetary Society. Please visit their main page and join this great science and exploration organization.

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