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Coming Attractions - MESSENGER

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Several space missions will start to deliver new science data in the next weeks or months, and will certainly bring lots of new information about many different aspects of the universe. Let's start looking at them...


The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) probe was launched in August 2004 and will start orbiting Mercury in 2011. It is taking a very complex route to get there: it has already flown by Earth in 2005, Venus in 2006 and 2007 and Mercury twice in 2008, yielding interesting science results on each of these passes. It is now about to make its third, and final, flyby of Mercury, using the planet's gravity once more to change its (the probe's) trajectory and lead it to an orbit insertion maneuvre in 18 March 2011.

2009-09-28-mercury.pngThe closest approach on this flyby, at 228km above the surface, will happen early in the morning of Wednesday, 30 September (7:55am Melbourne time); the image on the right (click to enlarge) is the view of Mercury from the probe last Friday, 25 September, at a distance of approximately 1.3 million km.

During the two previous flybys the probe mapped large areas of the surface that had never been seen properly. This time we will also get to see some small, still unmapped areas, but the main focus of the mission will be on getting better resolution images for some previously imaged areas and turning the probe's instruments on "interesting" areas identified earlier in the mission. Some of these include some unusually bright and some seemingly young craters; MESSENGER's website has a full description of these targets.

This flyby, like the previous two, will be packed with activity, as scientist try to squeeze as much information as possible from the few hours of close approach to the planet; nothing describes the frantic activities better than this panel provided by NASA, illustrating all observations that are planned in a graphical timeline. Also, for a full understanding of the complexity of MESSENGER's route from the Earth to Mercury, check out the Where is MESSENGER? webpage.

40 years ago...

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...Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were inside the Apollo 11 spacecraft, on their way to the Moon. They would reach their destination on 21 July at 6:17:40 AEST (20 July 20:17:40 UTC), and Neil Armstrong would become the first human to set foot on the Moon a few hours later, at 12:56 AEST. Images of this event were sent to the whole world from tracking stations in eastern Australia, as anyone who's watched "The Dish" knows.

There is really not much I can write about this event that hasn't been written before and better by other writers, so I will simply let this post mark the occasion. Or, rather, I will let the image below mark the occasion.


That is the Apollo 11 landing site, as photographed last week by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, current on its mission orbiting our satellite. You can clearly see the Eagle landing module, and if you click on the image you'll be taken to the NASA article with images of the landing sites of the other Apollo missions. And the best thing is: better images will come. These pictures were taken before the LRO reached its final orbit, and future passes over these sites will yield much better resolution.

So, let's celebrate the past with an eye on the future. Here's to our return to the Moon!

Forty years ago today...

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On 18 May 1969, Apollo 10 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the last mission in preparation for the Moon landing mission that was to come three months later.

Apollo 10 was a full "dress rehearsal", the only one in the Apollo program. The ship was identical to the one used for Apollo 11, and everything progressed — on board and on land — just as if a landing was going to happen. The Lunar Module was deployed on 23 May with Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan on board, leaving John W. Young alone in the command module, and it descended towards the Moon, spending six hours away from the Command Module and getting as close as 15.7km from the surface before going back up and docking.

The mission landed safely on 26 May on the Pacific Ocean, some 500km east of the American Samoa islands, and after that NASA was ready for the "real deal" with Apollo 11.

Commander Thomas Stafford left NASA soon after (ostensibly due to not having been selected to fly Apollo 13) and never returned to space; Young landed on the Moon with Apollo 16 in 1972 and flew the Space Shuttle's inaugural mission in 1981, among other missions; and Cernan has the distinction of being so far the last person to have been on the surface of the Moon, as a crew member on Apollo 17.


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This week will see, finally, the launch of space shuttle Atlantis carrying the astronauts for STS-125, the final Hubble servicing mission. This mission was delayed after Hubble developed some new faults late last year, but it looks like this time everything is going to happen as expected. As I write this, the countdown stands at 1 day, 8 hours, putting the launch in the early hours of this Tuesday, Melbourne time. At the same time, space shuttle Endeavour also sits on the launch pad, ready to act as Atlantis' rescue ship should anything go seriously wrong while in orbit.

But this week will also see two other important launches, neither of which is getting as much attention as it deserves. On 14 May at 23:12 Melbourne time (13:12 UTC), an Ariane 5 rocket will be launched from the Guiana Space Centre carrying two European observatories into orbit:

  • the Herschel Space Observatory is a 3.5 metre telescope, the largest space telescope ever launched; it will look at the universe in the low energy range of the far infrared, looking at what its creators call "the cool universe" — objects that are either not hot enough to emit visible light or far enough that their light is shifted into the far infrared by the time it gets to use
  • the Planck observatory is a microwave telescope that will look into the light emitted by the Big Bang, investigating variations in the temperature of the background radiation that permeates the universe; it intends to look at the Cosmig Microwave Background with a level of detail never before achieved and to bring us new insights into the properties of our universe during its early years

Both Herschel and Planck will be far away from the Earth, orbiting around L2 (the second Lagrangian point); this puts them around 1.5 million kilometres away and permanently in our night side. This allows both to operate without any interference from Earth's radiation belts and reduces the area of sky that is "off limits" to their instruments (since both the Earth and the Sun will be in the same general area of sky from the point of view of the observatories).

Hubble has certainly given us and our scientist an amazing amount of information about the universe over the years, and I do hope this servicing mission goes according to plan. But let's also hope that Herschel and Planck lift off without problems and bring us much more information over the next few years.

The growth of the ISS

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Space Shuttle mission STS-119 has just landed back in Florida, after delivering the latest addition to the International Space Station. I thought this would be a good time to look at how the station grew over the years.


In November 1998, this is what the ISS looked like. That's the control module Zarya (Russian for "dawn"), which was launched by Russia and was the first piece of the ISS to reach orbit. It was, indeed, fairly small: only 13 metres long from end to end (the solar panels span a bit under 25 metres). It was joined a few weeks later by module Unity, carried to orbit by Endeavour.


By 2002, the station had grown considerably. It retained basically this shape for several years, and I guess that's the shape many people think of when they think of the ISS — "lopsided", with solar panels only at one end.


And this is what it looks like now, after the recent mission; it is now 73 metres long and 104 metres wide, with the solar panels fully extended. It is still not complete, though: there are four more assembly missions in the schedule, two by NASA's space shuttles and two by Russian crafts. Assembly won't be completed until late 2011, at the earliest.

Still, with its very large (and reflective) solar panels, the ISS is already the brightest object visible in the sky (with the exception of the Sun and the Moon, of course) and can easily be seen from the ground if you know where (and when) to look; I recommend using the website Heavens Above for that. With a reasonable telescope and on a good day, you should be able to see the shape of the station in detail, but even small binoculars should allow you to see that it's a large object (and not simply a point of light).

(and for anyone interested, NASA has a much larger sequence of pictures showing the assembly of the station; they don't yet include the results of the latest mission, though)

Phoenix mission ends

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The Phoenix Mars Lander has stopped transmitting on 2 November, and NASA has declared the mission to be over. This was expected — Phoenix was never supposed to survive the Martian winter that is starting now, and will likely be fully encased in solid ice (probably CO2 ice) during the long winter months. It failed due to the diminishing day light and the increasingly cold temperatures.

Dave Moshen Mosher, at the Discovery Channel's Space Disco blog, has a good post about the mission with links to many pictures and videos from the mission. It's a shame that the microphone installed on the probe ended up never working...

There's a slim chance that the probe might come back to life in the next summer, after the polar ice cap melts back and it gets enough sun light. It is very unlikely that this will happen, though — even though the probe is named "Phoenix"...

Phoenix lands

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This has been all over the astrosphere, so I don't really need to talk much about the spectacular success of the Phoenix lander. I just wanted to share this amazing image:
Phoenix landing, Heimdal crater in background; image:NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

That's Phoenix, still hanging from its parachute and descending on Mars, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, with the Heimdall crater in the background. The lander is some 20km in front of the crater, and it can be better seen in the inset. Click on the image for more details and for larger versions of the image. Later on, the same camera photographed the landing site, showing Phoenix, its parachute and the remains of the heat shield very clearly. As everyone knows, the landing went on with no problems, but had anything gone wrong we'd probably know a lot about what happened.

Interestingly enough, Heimdall is the guardian of the gods and of the bridge between Midgard (the Earth) and Asgard (the land of the gods) in the Norse mythology. He seems to have allowed Phoenix through.

Results from the MESSENGER fly-by

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Mercury seen from MESSENGER, 27,000km awayScience data is a little slow in coming from this Tuesday's fly-by of Mercury, but according to NASA everything went as planned and the spacecraft seems to be were it was expected to be. The ground-based antennas are busy handling unexpected problems with Ulysses, another mission exploring that area of the Solar System (it just went over the north pole of the Sun), but we should get more info soon.

Meanwhile, the photo illustrating this article is the first one released by NASA (click on the image to enlarge). It was taken 80 minutes after the closest approach, when MESSENGER was already 27,000km away and looking back. It shows parts of the planet that had never been photographed before (they were not seen by Mariner 10), and that's just the beginning; we can expect many more pictures over the next few weeks, and we can expect to see most of the features of the planet in colour.

First MESSENGER images

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Mercury seen from MESSENGERAs I mentioned previously, images from the MESSENGER fly-by of Mercury have started arriving; the one shown here, the first one released by NASA, was taken from a distance of 2.7 million kilometres, just after midnight on 10 January (Melbourne time) (click the image to see a larger version).

MESSENGER will reach its closest approach to Mercury this time around early in the morning of 15 January (again, Melbourne time), when it will be 200km above the surface; images and movies should be released soon afterwards. This is the first time a spacecraft gets close to Mercury since Mariner 10, in 1974.

Watching Mercury

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Now is a good time to look at that small rock sitting very close to our Sun... Mercury is reaching it maximum eastern elongation, which means that it's about as far away from the Sun (when seen from Earth) as it is going to get this time around. If you have a nice, flat western horizon, look for it soon after the sunset, slightly north of the place where the Sun disappeared. The sky will still be quite bright by the time Mercury sets, but the best day to see it will be on the 21st. For observers in Melbourne, Mercury will set at 21:41 today and 21:42 tomorrow (the Sun sets at 20:45 and 20:44, respectively). For other locations, check this page from the US Naval Observatory.

But, of course, you may prefer to watch it from a better vantage point. If so, now is a very good time: MESSENGER, the first probe to visit that planet since the late 70s, is less than one week away from its first fly-by. The closest approach, at just 200km from the surface, will happen on the 14th, but the cameras will start to take pictures of the planet tomorrow, and some images should be released soon afterwards.

MESSENGER was launched in August 2004 and is in a very complex and long trajectory that will end up with the probe in orbit of the planet... on 18 March 2011. Two more fly-bys happen before then, one in October 2008 and other in September 2009. The reason for this is that it is very hard to send a probe that close to the Sun without having it go into the Sun; it will use its several planetary fly-bys (two of the Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury) to match its speed to that of Mercury, enabling it to enter the planet's orbit with relative ease.

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