For those of you who aren’t obsessed with following every available bit of news about space exploration, both robotic and crewed –
Well, first of all, what in the hell is wrong with you?
Somewhat more politely, let me point out to you what a great couple of weeks we’re in the middle of here for folks who are obsessed with following every available bit of news about space exploration. (It’s cool, you can join us!)
As I write this, the MAVEN team is having their post-orbital insertion news conference, celebrating a successful thirty-three minute long rocket firing to slow MAVEN down enough to drop into Mars orbit. This all happened two or three hours ago after a launch on November 18, 2013. The MAVEN science team will now be starting to check out the spacecraft and prepare it for a year (or more!) of science looking at the Martian atmosphere, attempting to figure out how it evolved from a dense, warm, moist atmosphere millions of years ago to the thin, cold, dry atmosphere we find today.
On Thursday, the 25th, the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan mission will be trying to do the same thing MAVEN did tonight. Mangalyaan launched on November 5, 2013 and is India’s first attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. The instruments on Mangalyaan, along with the instruments on MAVEN, along with NASA’s Mars Odyssey (orbiting since 2001), ESA’s Mars Express (orbiting since 2003), and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (orbiting since 2005), should all combine to start giving us an even better view of Mars from orbit, as well as information about the Martian atmosphere and environment.
Of course, on the surface of Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is now in the 3,892nd day (not a typo) of its ninety day mission, and NASA’s Curiosity rover is now in the 776th day of its ninety day mission. There was an announcement this week that Curiosity has now reached the base of Mount Sharp in Gail Crater after over a year of driving. Let the mountain climbing on Mars (and the über spectacular science) begin!
To make things even more interesting, on October 19th, just four weeks from now, Comet Siding Spring will pass just 82,000 miles from Mars. It will take several hours for the comet’s closest approach to occur, a time during which all of the orbiting spacecraft could be vulnerable to being hit by all kinds of ice and dust spraying off of the comet’s nucleus. All of the orbiting spacecraft will be maneuvered as best we can to have them on the opposite side of the planet during closest approach, letting Mars be a shield of sorts, but it could still be risky. The two surface rovers will be fine and should give us some unbelievably spectacular pictures. The Martian atmosphere, thin as it is, will shield them from any danger — as long as the comet doesn’t actually hit Mars, which is listed as “unlikely” on the NASA site.
Further out, Juno’s on the way to orbit Jupiter and will be there in July, 2016. That whole spectacle of waiting to see if the rocket fired and the spacecraft is successfully in orbit will be played out again then, just with a bigger planett, a bigger budget, and a bigger spacecraft.
Even further out, New Horizons is just less than a year away from its flyby of Pluto. It will be our first visit to Pluto, whether it’s a planet or not (it is) and should be amazing. After that, New Horizons should last for years and there’s a search on already to see if there are any other Kuiper Belt objects that might be close enough to its path to get a good look at.
Meanwhile, Cassini continues to orbit Saturn (over ten years now!) and makes yet another close flyby of Titan this week. Cassini’s extended extended mission is scheduled for another two years, including some riskier moves (now that it’s sent back a ton of pictures and data already) including passes through the gaps between Saturn’s rings. Not only will the pictures be unbelievable, but we’ll find out empirically if those gaps are actually empty of orbiting material. If Cassini all of a sudden goes quiet…
On the crewed side, NASA announced this last week that it’s going ahead with funding for both SpaceX’s Dragon2 crewed capsule and the Boeing CTS-100 crewed capsule. With luck, we’ll be launching American astronauts to the ISS from American soil in less than three years, with multiple systems from multiple vendors to get the job done. Sierra Nevada is currently out of the NASA-funded process, but says they will continue independently to develop their Dream Chaser spacecraft, and the NASA Commercial Crew program allows them to jump back into the game and get contracts to carry astronauts on missions if they’ve got a system to do so.
Of course, as a side note, if SpaceX and/or Boeing and/or Sierra Nevada have working crewed vehicles and NASA only wants them to launch astronauts three or four times a year, there will be people like Bigelow Aerospace who have been waiting for years to launch their own, private space station, to be used both as a research facility and as a tourist destination. Needless to say, I would look on that as a very good thing.
With the current ISS setup and hardware, SpaceX last night successfully launched a Falcon 9 with the CRS-4 Dragon mission. The Dragon should dock at ISS on Tuesday.
The ISS Expedition 39/40 crew came down from the station and landed in Russia on September 11th. Their replacements, the Expedition 41/42 crew, is scheduled to launch from Russia on Thursday, September 25th.
Finally, earlier this week NASA rolled out its first flight-ready Orion spacecraft, moving it to the mating facility where it will be attached to the rocket for its first (uncrewed) flight test in December.
So in summary:
- Yesterday — Dragon CRS-4 launched
- Tonight — MAVEN successful Mars orbit insertion
- Tues, 23rd — Dragon CRS-4 arrives at ISS
- Thurs, 25th — Expedition 41/42 crew launches
- Thurs, 25th — ISRO’s Mangalyaan arrives at Mars
as well as:
- Opportunity — on Mars, apparently indestructible
- Curiosity — on Mars, climbing Mt. Sharp
- Cassini — at Saturn, buzzing Titan this week
- Juno — headed to Jupiter
- New Horizons — headed to Pluto
As I said, it’s a great couple of weeks to be a space cadet!