Destination: Gale Crater

The decision has finally been made. A giant rover known as Curiosity (or the Mars Science Laboratory) that is the size of a Mini will be launched to make a landing in Gale crater on Mars.

Comparison between Sojourner, MER and MSL

As we’ve said, MSL is huge. The size of mini. Over twice the size when compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The Sojourner rover insignificant in comparison.

Gale crater is pretty big too, 154km across, and is an ideal place for a rover. It’s thought to hold a lot of evidence for past water on the Red planet. MSL itself has been designed to look for evidence of past life, whether Mars was ever habitable at all in its past. The rover will spend 1 Martian year exploring the surface (about 2 Earth years) and if the MER’s are anything to go by, Curiosity should last longer (although they are using different power generating sources).

The rover is also going to carry out the first precision landing on Mars. It’ll be using a very unique and ambitious system, a sky crane. I’d compare it to being as difficult as a manned lunar module landing, as in Apollo. It’s a pretty incredible system.

Curiosity will be launching sometime between the 25th November and the 18th December 2011 and landing between the 6th and 20th August 2012, so keep checking NASA’s website for updates.

Here are two videos showing the operation of the sky crane and another describing what Curiosity will be doing at Gale.

Links: NASA report on landing site selection
Space.com report

 

What did the Shuttle mean to You?

I’ve received some great feedback from people reference my previous post ‘When We Left Earth – What the Shuttle Meant to Me‘ and I’d really love to hear what it meant to you.

How did you hear about it? How old were you? What did you think? How did it make you feel? Did it change you in any way? What did the Shuttle mean to you?

Leave a comment and then I’ll merge them into the actual post below here. I look forward to your stories.

  1. Rosie Harris

    The first thing I remember about space travel was when I was 5 – I sat on my mum’s knee and to this day remember watching the news footage of Challenger exploding. I remember how sad I felt but at the same time I was fascinated because my parents kept explaining how brave the astronauts (and teacher!) were. That is what initiated my my interest in space – the people who wanted to explore it, get closer to it and risk their lives to do it. As exciting as discoveries of the unknown from unmanned rockets are to me now, I just don’t think I would have become so interested without that initial “human” introduction – although it is unfortunate that mine was through such a tragic event.

When We Left Earth – What the Shuttle Meant to Me

I was reading through the Radio Times to see if there was anything cool on the telly soon. It was a warm, sunny day in July 2002 and I found a programme that had caught my eye. I highlighted it and said to my dad “can we record this please?” I was 11 and cable had yet to be introduced to our lonely corner of the village. A good friend and neighbor however had more money than the rest of us in the cul-de-sac and had this thing called Sky along with a funny dish stuck to his house. He could record it for me, and he did!

The programme was called ‘Rocket Men of Mission 105’ and the description in the Radio Times had read something like ‘the story of a mission to space’. The next day the neighbor bought up the programme recorded onto VHS for me (Yes VHS) and I sat down to watch it with an un-blinked glaze in my eyes for just under and hour. Here, I think, my obsession with space began.

Since then I’ve missed maybe only two or three launches. I managed to persuade my parents to let me wake up in the early hours to see some night launches. I recall one time getting up at something like 3am to see the launch of Endeavour. In the time before YouTube existed I recorded the launches onto VHS so I could watch them again and again.
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New moon discovered around Pluto

Hubble’s still turning up surprises, even today. Whilst focusing her gaze at Pluto, doing some extra research in preparation for the New Horizons flyby in 2015, Hubble has found an extra blob in its vicinity. That’s right Pluto has a new moon.

New Moon 'P4' Discovered Around Pluto

Pluto already has 3 moons. Charon is the biggest at over 1000km across and is the largest moon in the solar system when compared to the size of its companion, Pluto. There’s also Nix, Hydra and now P4, although that isn’t it’s official name just a nickname for the time being.

The new moon could be between about 10-40km across, making it Pluto’s smallest moon. It’s difficult to judge its size initially. It’s probably a very icy body, like most things out this far – 5.9 billion km – meaning that it’d have a fairly icy surface. If this is the case the moon reflects a lot of the light from Sun and that’ll mean it’d be on the smaller side of things. If it’s reflecting a small amount of light though, meaning it’s a darker body (this could be due to radiation effects) then it’d be on the larger side of things.

The Pluto System

P4 fits nicely between the orbits of Nix and Hydra. It’s thought that the moons were created in a large impact event much like the theory behind our own moons formation where a large body hit the planet, flung material into space and then re-coalesced to form the moon.

We’ll be finding out more about this intriguing, unexplored part of the Solar System when New Horizons flies by in 4 years time. It’s a pretty exciting mission where we’ll be looking in detail at Kuiper Belt Objects for the first time.

More information on this discovery from NASA, the BBC and New Scientist

Dawn in orbit at Vesta

It’s confirmed. Dawn is finally in orbit around Vesta! She’s pretty close too, at the moment at about 6,500 miles and that’ll decrease down to about 3,000 miles over the next few days. Eventually Dawn could get down to within 200km of the surface during it’s year in orbit.

And now, fresh off the press, new pictures of Vesta!

The First Close Up of Vesta

Vesta Asteroid Comparison

And crack out those 3D glasses!

3D Image of Vesta's South Polar Region

More information on the mission here and here

A New World – Dawn approaching Vesta

Dawn – The journey to the beginning of the Solar System! It’s a fairly ambitious mission, as are most of NASA’s missions at the moment. Firstly the spacecraft uses ion propulsion, a technology tested on Deep Space 1 but never before used for a dedicated science mission. Secondly Dawn has not one but two targets. The large asteroid or even protoplanet, Vesta and then the dwarf planet Ceres. The spacecraft will go into orbit around Vesta, happily do some science for a while, break orbit and then go to orbit Ceres!

Launch of Dawn on a Delta II Rocket

Dawn launched back in September 2007 atop a Delta II rocket. It’s been in the cruise ever since, giving short bursts of ion propulsion to refine it’s orbit. Now after nearly 4 years she’s almost arrived, ready to hop into orbit.

Vesta is the largest asteroid in the Solar System (Ceres is larger but is termed a dwarf planet) it’s about 530km across and is estimated to contain 9% of the mass of the asteroid belt, so it’s a pretty hefty object. It’s thought to be differentiated, that is it’s so big so that heavier elements, like iron, fall towards the centre and lighter elements are found nearer the surface. This is the same way that Earth’s core formed.

We already know a fair bit about Vesta surprisingly. About 1 billion years ago Vesta was hit by an asteroid that’s left a small crater. This threw out lots and lots of debris, and quite a bit of this has fallen to the Earth. These meteorites have the fancy name of Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite (HED) meteorites. Evidence from these meteorites show that Vesta is between 4.43 and 4.55 billion years old and reveals that Vesta has a history of extensive igneous processes. Infact the meteorites are very similar to magmatic rocks found on the Earth.

The mission at Vesta is to develop our understanding of how the Solar System formed and in particular what role water played in planetary evolution. Vesta and Ceres both reflect what the early Solar System was like, something we can’t figure out here on Earth because of all the geological activity the Earth is still going through. Continue reading