A busy year for NASA spacecraft

MESSENGER departs EarthDespite the fact that the Space Shuttle program will end permanently during the coming months,1 NASA still has a busy schedule in 2011. This year will see the launch of three new unmanned science missions in the short span of just four months, plus major payoffs as several previously launched unmanned missions arrive at their respective destinations. And by the end of this year, scientists anticipate they will have made a number of new discoveries and significantly increased their knowledge about the formation of our solar system, as well as about several planets and asteroids.

MESSENGER2 — March 18, 2011 arrival at Mercury

MESSENGER orbital insertion at MercuryThe MESSENGER spacecraft will fire its braking thrusters and enter into orbit around the planet Mercury on March 18 after nearly seven years of travel (and several previous planetary flybys).

MESSENGER is the first spacecraft to visit Mercury in more than 36 years (since Mariner 10), so very little is known about the planet. For example, before the MESSENGER mission only about half of Mercury’s surface had been mapped. Planetary scientists consider a better understanding of Mercury to be vital to determining how the solar system formed.

To learn more, visit NASA’s MESSENGER mission page.

Dawn — July 2011 arrival at asteroid Vesta

Dawn spacecraftThe Dawn spacecraft was designed to travel within the asteroid belt (located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) and study two of the larger bodies found there. In July, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around Vesta and spend nearly a year studying that large asteroid. Then in May 2012, Dawn will depart Vesta and travel to the dwarf planet Ceres to continue its investigations.

Dawn carries two high-resolution optical cameras, a gamma ray and neutron detector, and a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer. This suite of scientific instruments will enable Dawn to conduct detailed analyses of Vesta and Ceres, and answer questions about their composition, origins and formation.

To learn more, visit NASA’s Dawn mission page.

Juno — August 5, 2011 launch3

Juno spacecraft orbiting JupiterThe Juno spacecraft will travel for five years and reach the planet Jupiter in October 2016. Juno carries instruments to measure and analyze Jupiter’s atmosphere (composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties), gravitational and magnetic fields. Ultimately that data will help us understand the origins of the gas giant,4 and thus the origins of the solar system.

To learn more, visit NASA’s Juno mission page.

GRAIL5 — September 8, 2011 launch

GRAIL spacecraftGRAIL is a set of twin spacecraft that will orbit the moon together in order to precisely measure and map the moon’s gravitational field. That data then will be used to determine the structure of the lunar interior, from crust to core, as well as advance our understanding of the evolution of the Moon.

To learn more, visit the GRAIL mission page.

Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity Rover — November 25, 2011 launch

Curiosity roverThe Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity is the next in the series of rovers to explore the red planet. If we think of the current Spirit and Opportunity rovers as robotic go-carts, then Curiosity is more like a well-equipped SUV. Curiosity boasts what NASA calls “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload ten times as massive as those of earlier rovers.”

The mission objects for the Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity are simple: To investigate whether conditions have ever been favorable on Mars for microbial life, and to examine Martian rocks for clues of such past life.

To learn more, visit NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission page.

So 2011 promises to be a busy year for NASA space probes and planetary science discoveries.

All images courtesy of NASA.

  1. The end of the Shuttle program means the loss — for an undetermined period of time — of direct access to space for American astronauts. In the short term, NASA astronauts will reach orbit and the International Space Station as passengers aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The last Shuttle mission currently is scheduled for launch in June. []
  2. MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging []
  3. All launch dates are tentative and depend on a variety of factors, including weather at the launch site. []
  4. There currently are several competing theories for how Jupiter formed. Each of those theories differs in its prediction of how much water exists in Jupiter’s atmosphere. By measuring the amount of water in the atmosphere, the Juno mission will help determine which theory of planetary formation is correct (or whether an entirely new theory is required). []
  5. Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory []

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