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2011: The year in space

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft investigating Jupiter. Juno is set for launch later this year.

THERE ARE LOTS OF EXCITING happenings coming up in space this year. Here’s just a sample of what we can expect.

On February 14-15, NASA’s Stardust probe will do a fly-by of comet Tempel 1. It’ll be looking for damage done by the Deep Impact spacecraft, which fired a projectile into the comet back in 2005.

Also there’ll be the launch of Glory, an Earth-orbiting spacecraft that’ll make readings of black carbon and aerosols in the atmosphere, and measure the amount of incoming sunlight. Plus there’ll be the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, on a mission to the space station.

March will see NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft go into orbit around Mercury, the first probe to do so. A largely unknown world, the closest planet to the Sun is sure to hold some surprises. That month will also mark 25 years since Europe’s Giotto probe gave us our first close-up look at a comet, the famous Halley.

In April there’ll be a bunch of anniversaries, the 30th of the first space shuttle launch, the 40th of the first space station launch (which was the Soviet’s Salyut 1), and the biggie, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go into outer space.

Artist's impression of Salyut 1

Artist's impression of Salyut 1, the world's first space station.

April will also see the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour. And it could be the final shuttle mission of all. An extra flight by Atlantis in June has been approved but not yet funded, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Also in June, some parts of Australia will catch a short glimpse of a lunar eclipse.

July will see the second flight of the new, private Dragon spacecraft, designed to take cargo and eventually people to the International Space Station. Its first short test flight last year went perfectly. Dragon could end up being the replacement for the space shuttle.

Also in July, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will sidle up to the 530km-wide asteroid Vesta, and go into orbit. It’ll spend a year investigating it before heading off to do the same thing with the even larger asteroid Ceres, which is actually known as a dwarf planet these days.

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft studying asteroid Vesta

August will see the launch of Juno, NASA’s new unmanned mission to study the planet Jupiter. It’ll take about five years to get there. And the following month will see NASA launch GRAIL, a pair of satellites that’ll orbit the Moon and map its gravitational field, which will help scientists work out its inner structure.

In November, Russia will launch Fobos-Grunt, a mission to the larger of the two Martian moons, Phobos. All going well, it’ll touch down, grab some samples, and blast off back to Earth with them. The Chinese are piggybacking a small satellite too, which will orbit Mars and study its atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.

Finally, in December, there’ll be another launch of that Dragon capsule, plus the first launch of its competitor, called Cygnus. And to top it off, we’ll have another lunar eclipse.

Image credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Recycled spacecraft to revisit comet

An artist's impression of Stardust NExT approaching comet Tempel 1.

The Stardust NExT spacecraft will fly past comet Tempel 1 on February 15 (Sydney time) at a distance of only 200 kilometres.

NASA’S STARDUST NEXT SPACECRAFT is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 3:37pm on February 15, Sydney time (11:37pm US EST on Feb 14). The mission will enable scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet’s surface that occurred following an orbit around the Sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma…the cloud of material surrounding the comet’s core.

Data from the mission will provide important new information on how certain types of comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA’s Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft sent an impactor into the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater formed by the impactor. This would be a bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

Here’s a short video of the result of Deep Impact’s impactor hitting Tempel 1:

“Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets,” said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University.

“Going back for another look at Tempel 1 will provide new insights on how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

Close encounter of the comet kind

At approximately 336 million kilometres away from Earth, Stardust-NExT will be almost on the exact opposite side of the Solar System at the time of the encounter. (As of January 20, the spacecraft was approximately 24.6 million kilometres away from its encounter.) During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72 images and store them in an onboard computer.

Initial raw images from the flyby will be sent to Earth for processing that will begin at approximately 7:00pm Sydney time on February 15. Images are expected to be made public 90 minutes later.

Since 2007, Stardust-NExT executed eight flight path correction manoeuvres, logged four circuits around the Sun and used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.

Tempel 1 impact blast

The blast produced when an impactor released by the Deep Impact spacecraft, hit comet Tempel 1 in 2005. Scientist's hope Stardust NExT will give them a close-up look at the blast crater.

Another three manoeuvres are planned to refine the spacecraft’s path to the comet. Tempel 1’s orbit takes it as close in to the Sun as the orbit of Mars and almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter. The spacecraft is expected to fly past the nearly 6-kilometre-wide comet at a distance of approximately 200 kilometres.

Running on empty

In 2004, Stardust became the first mission to collect particles directly from comet Wild 2, as well as interstellar dust. Samples were returned in 2006 for study via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground southwest of Salt Lake City.

Mission controllers placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a trajectory that could potentially reuse the system if a target of opportunity presented itself.

In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission Stardust-NExT and began a four-and-a-half year journey to comet Tempel 1.

“You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary campaigns,” said Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It’s been half-way to Jupiter, executed picture-perfect flybys of an asteroid and a comet, collected cometary material for return to Earth, then headed back out into the void again, where we asked it to go head-to-head with a second comet nucleus.”

The mission team expects this fly-by to write the final chapter of the spacecraft’s success-filled story. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel as it approaches 12 years of space travel, logging almost 6 billion kilometres since launch in 1999.

This fly-by and planned post-encounter imaging are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

Adapted from information issued by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Video of comet fly-by

  • NASA’s EPOXI mission flew past Comet Hartley 2
  • Only 5th time a comet’s nucleus has been seen up close

A new video clip has been compiled from images taken by NASA’s EPOXI mission spacecraft during its flyby of comet Hartley 2 on November 4-5, 2010.

During the encounter, the spacecraft and comet whisked past each other at a speed of over 44,000 kilometres per hour (27,560 miles per hour). The spacecraft came within about 700 kilometres (435 miles) of the comet’s nucleus at the time of closest approach.

“While future generations should have the opportunity to truly explore comets, this flyby gives us an excellent preview of what they will get to enjoy,” said EPOXI principal investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. “Hartley 2 exceeded all our expectations in not only scientific value but in its stark majestic beauty.”

The video clip of the flyby is comprised of 40 frames taken from the spacecraft’s Medium-Resolution Instrument during the encounter. The first image was taken at about 37 minutes before the time of closest approach at a distance of about 27,350 kilometres (17,000 miles).

The last image was taken 30 minutes after closest approach at a distance of 22,200 kilometres (13,800 miles). The spacecraft was able to image nearly 50 percent of the comet’s illuminated surface in detail.

The EPOXI mission’s flyby of comet Hartley 2 was only the fifth time in history that a comet nucleus has been imaged, and the first time in history that two comets have been imaged with the same instruments and same spatial resolution.

EPOXI is an extended mission that utilises the already “in flight” Deep Impact spacecraft to explore distinct celestial targets of opportunity. The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterisation (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as “Deep Impact.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / University of Maryland.

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Close-up look at a comet

Comet Hartley 2

First views of comet Hartley 2, courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD.

NASA’s EPOXI mission spacecraft successfully flew past Comet Hartley 2 at 1:00am Sydney time Friday. Scientists say initial images from the flyby provide new information about the comet’s volume and material spewing from its surface.

“Early observations of the comet show that, for the first time, we may be able to connect activity to individual features on the nucleus,” said EPOXI principal investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. “We certainly have our hands full. The images are full of great cometary data, and that’s what we hoped for.”

EPOXI is an extended mission that uses the already in-flight Deep Impact spacecraft. Its encounter phase with Hartley 2 began on November 3, when the spacecraft began to point its two imagers at the comet’s nucleus. Imaging of the nucleus began one hour later.

“The spacecraft has provided the most extensive observations of a comet in history,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Scientists and engineers have successfully squeezed world-class science from a re-purposed spacecraft at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of a new science project.”

Comet Hartley 2

A view of Hartley 2 as the EPOXI mission approached the comet, courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD

Comet Hartley 2

Hartley 2 is an unusually active comet, emitting streams of gas and dust. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD.

Images from the EPOXI mission reveal Comet Hartley 2 to have 100 times less volume than comet Tempel 1, the first target of Deep Impact. More revelations about Hartley 2 are expected as analysis continues.

Initial estimates indicate the spacecraft was about 700 kilometres from the comet at the closest-approach point. That’s almost the exact distance that was calculated by engineers in advance of the flyby.

“It is a testament to our team’s skill that we nailed the flyby distance to a comet that likes to move around the sky so much,” said Tim Larson, EPOXI project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “While it’s great to see the images coming down, there is still work to be done. We have another three weeks of imaging during our outbound journey.”

The name EPOXI is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterisation (EPOCh), and the flyby of Comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft has retained the name Deep Impact. In 2005, Deep Impact successfully released an impactor into the path of Comet Tempel 1.

Comet Hartley 2

Another view of comet Hartley 2, courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD.

Comet Hartley 2

Like all comets, Hartley 2 is a mixture of various ices, dust and rocky rubble. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD.

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Encounter with a comet

Artist's concept of Deep Impact encounter

Artist's concept of the Deep Impact spacecraft's previous encounter, with Comet Tempel 1 (not to scale). Deep Impact, renamed the EPOXI mission, will encounter another comet, Hartley 2, on November 4.

  • EPOXI spacecraft to visit Comet Hartley 2
  • Close fly-by set for November 4
  • Only fifth mission to rendezvous with a comet

NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft is hurtling toward Comet Hartley 2 for a breathtaking 700-kilometre flyby on November 4. Mission scientists say all systems are go for a close encounter with one of the smallest yet most active comets they’ve seen.

“There are billions of comets in the Solar System, but this will be only the fifth time a spacecraft has flown close enough to one to snap pictures of its nucleus,” says Lori Feaga of the EPOXI science team. “This one should put on quite a show!

Cometary orbits tend to be highly elongated; they travel far from the Sun and then swing much closer. At encounter time, Hartley 2 will be nearing the Sun and warming up after its cold, deep space sojourn. The ices in its nucleus will be vaporising furiously—spitting out dust and spouting gaseous geysers or jets.

“Hartley 2’s nucleus is small, less than a mile in diameter,” says Feaga. “But its surface offgasses at a higher rate than [cometary] nuclei we’ve seen before. We expect more jets and outbursts from this one.”

EPOXI will swoop down into the comet’s bright coma—the sparkling cloud of debris, illuminated by the Sun—shrouding the nucleus. The spacecraft’s cameras, taking high-resolution (7 metres per pixel at closest approach) pictures all the while, will reveal this new world in all its fizzy glory.

Comet Hartley 2

Comet Hartley 2, photographed on October 13 by Nick Howes using the 2-metre Faulkes North Telescope in Hawaii.

“We hope to see features of the comet’s scarred face: craters, fractures, vents,” says Sebastien Besse of the science team. “We may even be able to tell which features are spewing jets!”

The spacecraft’s instruments are already trained on their speeding target.

“We’re still pretty far out, so we don’t yet see a nucleus,” explains Besse. “But our daily observations with the spectrometer and cameras are already helping us identify the species and amounts of gases in the coma and learn how they evolve over time as we approach.”

Solar System leftovers

The aim of the mission is to gather details about what the nucleus is made of and compare it to other comets. Because comets spend much of their time far from the sun, the cold preserves their composition—and that composition tells a great story.

“Comets are left-overs from the ‘construction’ of our Solar System,” explains Besse. “When the planets formed out of the ‘stuff’ in the solar nebula spinning around the sun, comets weren’t drawn in.”

Researchers study these pristine specimens of the primal solar system to learn something about how it formed, and how it birthed a life-bearing planet like Earth.

EPOXI mission logo

The EPOXI mission logo.

“These flybys help us figure out what happened 4.5 billion years ago,” says Feaga. “So far we’ve only seen four nuclei. We need to study more comets to learn how they differ and how they are the same. This visit will help, especially since Hartley 2 is in many ways unlike the others we’ve seen.”

EPOXI will provide not only a birds-eye view of a new world but also the best extended view of a comet in history.

“This spacecraft is built for close encounters. Its instruments and our planned observations are optimised for this kind of mission. When, as Deep Impact, it flew by Tempel 1, it turned its instruments away from the nucleus to protect them from debris blasted up by the impactor. This time we won’t turn away.”

The EPOXI team will be waiting at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We’ll start diving into the data as soon as we receive it,” says Feaga. “We’ll work round the clock, on our toes the whole time, waiting for the next thing to come down.”

Sounds like it could be intense.

“It’s already intense,” says Besse. “We’re getting more and more data, but at encounter we’ll be flooded!”

And that will be only the beginning.

Adapted from information issued by Dauna Coulter / Dr Tony Phillips / Science@NASA / Pat Rawlings / JPL / UMD.

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Second life: comet mission continues

Comet Hartley 2 seen by the EPOXI mission

The first view of Comet Hartley 2 (fuzz ball in the centre of the image) taken by the EPOXI mission, which is using NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft to study the comet in great detail. The rendezvous date will be November 4, 2010.

On Sunday, September 5, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft beamed down the first of more than 64,000 images it’s expected to take of Comet Hartley 2. The spacecraft, now on an extended mission known as EPOXI, has an appointment with the comet on November 4, 2010.

Deep Impact made headlines around the world in July 2005 when it conducted a fly-by of Comet Tempel 1 and fired a projectile into it. The projectile caused a huge explosion on impact and gouged out a huge chunk of the Temple 1’s surface and sub-surface ice, enabling Deep Impact’s instruments to give us our first view of the ice that lives below the surface of a comet.

Impact on comet Tempel 1

Flash back to 2005, when Deep Impact fired a projectile into Comet Tempel 1, causing a huge explosion that gave scientists their first look at the interior of a comet.

It was realised soon after that the Deep Impact spacecraft was still in good shape, and could be retargeted to take an up close look at a second comet, Hartley 2.

There won’t be any fireworks this time, though, as Deep Impact’s only projectile was destroyed in its deliberate 2005 collision with comet Tempel 1.

Instead, it will use all three of its instruments (two telescopes with digital colour cameras and an infrared spectrometer) to scrutinise Hartley 2 for more than two months.

The spacecraft is stilled called Deep Impact, but the mission has been renamed EPOXI…a combination of the names for the two new mission aims: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterisation (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI).

Longest up-close views of a comet

“Like any tourist who can’t wait to get to a destination, we have already begun taking pictures of our comet…Hartley 2,” said Tim Larson, the project manager for EPOXI from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We have to wait for November 4 to get the close-up pictures of the cometary nucleus, but these approach images should keep the science team busy for quite some time as well.”

Deep Impact spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Deep Impact spacecraft.

The imaging campaign, along with data from all the instruments aboard Deep Impact, will afford the mission’s science team the best, extended view of a comet in history during Hartley 2’s pass through the inner Solar System.

With the exception of one, six-day break to calibrate instruments and perform a trajectory correction manoeuvre, the spacecraft will continuously monitor Hartley 2’s gas and dust output for the next 79 days.

This first image of comet Hartley 2 taken by Deep Impact was obtained by the spacecraft’s Medium Resolution Imager on September 5 when the spacecraft was 60 million kilometres (37.2 million miles) from the comet.

EPOXI is an extended mission that utilises the already “in flight” Deep Impact spacecraft to explore distinct targets of opportunity.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / University of Maryland.

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Comet probe pays visit to Earth

Artist's impression of Deep Impact and comet Tempel 1

Artist's impression of the then Deep Impact spacecraft visiting Comet Tempel 1 in 2005. Now renamed EPOXI, the spacecraft will visit another comet in November 2010.

  • EPOXI mission bound for Comet Hartley 2
  • To make fly-by of Earth to pick up speed
  • Due to reach the comet in November 2010

On Sunday, NASA’s historic Deep Impact spacecraft will fly past Earth for the fifth and last time on its current University of Maryland-led EPOXI mission. At time of closest approach to Earth, the spacecraft will be about 30,400 kilometres (18,900 miles) above the South Atlantic.

Mission navigators have tailored this trajectory to change the shape of the spacecraft’s orbit and to boost it on its way to the mission’s ultimate fly-by, a close encounter with comet Hartley 2 in November.

Diagram showing EPOXI's orbit and fly-bys

EPOXI will make a fly-by of Earth on June 26, and reach Comet Hartley 2 in November 2010.

“The speed and orbital track of the spacecraft can be changed by changing aspects of its fly-by of Earth, such as how close it comes to the planet,” explained University of Maryland astronomer Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for both the EPOXI mission and its predecessor mission, Deep Impact.

“There is always some gravity boost at a fly-by and in some cases, like this one, it is the main reason for a fly-by,” said A’Hearn.

“The last Earth fly-by was used primarily to change the tilt of the spacecraft’s orbit to match that of comet Hartley 2, and we are using Sunday’s fly-by to also change the shape of the orbit to get us to the comet.”

The Deep Impact mission made history and headlines worldwide when it smashed a probe into comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005.

“Earth is a great place to pick up orbital velocity,” said Tim Larson, the EPOXI project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This fly-by will give our spacecraft a 1.5-kilometer-per-second [3,470 mph] boost, setting us up to get up close and personal with comet Hartley 2.”

A recycled mission

EPOXI is an extended mission of the Deep Impact fly-by spacecraft. Its name is derived from this mission’s two tasked science investigations—the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) and the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization (EPOCh).

Impact on Comet Tempel 1

In 2005, an impactor was collided with Comet Tempel 1, resulting in this huge flash.

On November 4, 2010, the mission will conduct an extended encounter with Hartley 2, studying the comet using all three of the spacecraft’s instruments (two telescopes with digital colour cameras and an infrared spectrometer).

On its original mission, the Deep Impact fly-by spacecraft had a companion probe spacecraft that was smashed into comet Tempel 1 to reveal for the first time the inner material of a comet.

Although scientific objectives have never been a primary purpose of the Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft’s fly-bys of Earth, the mission team has used the spacecraft’s instruments to find clear evidence of water on the Moon and to study light reflected from Earth as a template that scientists eventually may be able be use to identify Earth-like planets around other stars.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Maryland / NASA / JPL-Caltech / UMD / Pat Rawlings.