Space Science

What’s Up – October 2019

Posted on Updated on

Published by NASA

moonjournal_main
Celebrate International Observe the Moon Night with NASA on October 5! Credit: NASA/JPL

 

Link to article with video: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/details.php?id=1588

Link to page: International Observe the Moon Night, Oct 5, 2019

What can you see in the October sky? Join the global celebration of International Observe the Moon Night on Oct. 5th, then try to catch the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune, which are well placed for viewing in the late night sky.

Transcript:

What’s Up for October? A night for the whole world to observe the Moon and hunting for ice giants!

International Observe the Moon Night is Oct. 5th. It’s an annual celebration of lunar observation and exploration. Events are scheduled in lots of places around the world, so there may be one near you. But all you really need to participate is to go out and look up.

The event is timed to coincide with the first quarter moon. This allows for some great observing along the lunar terminator – the line that divides the dayside from the nightside. With even a small pair of binoculars, you can see some great details as features like mountains and craters pop up into the light. Learn more and look for events in your area at moon.nasa.gov/observe.

October is a great time to try and capture an ICE GIANT. Now, these aren’t mythical creatures. They’re planets – the most distant of the major planets of our solar system, Uranus and Neptune.

The four giant planets of our solar system are not created equal. The gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, are much bigger and way more massive, while the ice giants are so named because they contain a much higher amount of materials that typically form ices in the frigid depths of the outer solar system.

In October, both Uranus and Neptune are well placed in the late night sky. In fact, you can see all four giant planets in the same evening if you look for Jupiter and Saturn in the west after sunset, and then come back a couple of hours later to spot Uranus and Neptune. (Think of it as your own personal “Voyager mission.” NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited the ice giants so far, although scientists are eager to go back for a more detailed study.)

Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, the ice giants are quite faint, so the best way to observe them is with a telescope, and from personal experience, it’s much easier to find them if you have a computer-controlled mount that can automatically point the telescope for you. If you don’t have access to one, find a local event with the Night Sky Network at nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov. Otherwise, sky watching apps can help you star-hop your way to these two incredibly distant planets.

Now be advised, because they’re so far away, each planet appears as just a point of light. But with a modest telescope, you’ll see Uranus as a tiny disk. You’d be forgiven for mistaking Neptune as a star – it’s the same size as Uranus, but much farther away, so it’s fainter.

The ice giants are elusive, but well worth the effort to say you’ve seen them with your own eyes.

Here are the phases of the Moon for October. You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov. I’m Preston Dyches from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that’s What’s Up for this month.

 

What Uranus Cloud Tops Have in Common With Rotten Eggs

Posted on Updated on

 

Uranus
Arriving at Uranus in 1986, Voyager 2 observed a bluish orb with extremely subtle features. A haze layer hid most of the planet’s cloud features from view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

  

Even after decades of observations and a visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret — the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet’s clouds has finally been verified. 

A global research team that includes Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 26.25-foot (8-meter) Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’ cloud tops. The long-sought evidence was published in the April 23rd issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

The detection of hydrogen sulfide high in Uranus’ cloud deck (and presumably Neptune’s) is a striking difference from the gas giant planets located closer to the Sun — Jupiter and Saturn — where ammonia is observed above the clouds, but no hydrogen sulfide. These differences in atmospheric composition shed light on questions about the planets’ formation and history. 

 
Read the rest of this entry »

Uranus May Have Two Undiscovered Moons

Posted on Updated on

Written by Tara Roberts
University of Idaho Communications
For NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California 
October 21, 2016 at 1:04 p.m. EDT

Uranus is seen in this false-color view from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope from August 2003. The brightness of the planet’s faint rings and dark moons has been enhanced for visibility. Image credit: NASA/Erich Karkoschka (Univ. Arizona)

 

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus 30 years ago, but researchers are still making discoveries from the data it gathered then. A new study led by University of Idaho researchers suggests there could be two tiny, previously undiscovered moonlets orbiting near two of the planet’s rings.

Rob Chancia, a University of Idaho doctoral student, spotted key patterns in the rings while examining decades-old images of Uranus’ icy rings taken by Voyager 2 in 1986. He noticed the amount of ring material on the edge of the alpha ring — one of the brightest of Uranus’ multiple rings — varied periodically. A similar, even more promising pattern occurred in the same part of the neighboring beta ring.

“When you look at this pattern in different places around the ring, the wavelength is different — that points to something changing as you go around the ring. There’s something breaking the symmetry,” said Matt Hedman, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Idaho, who worked with Chancia to investigate the finding. 

Their results will be published in The Astronomical Journal and have been posted to the pre-press site arXiv.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

NASA Scientists Find ‘Impossible’ Cloud on Titan — Again

Posted on Updated on

The hazy globe of Titan hangs in front of Saturn and its rings in this natural color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

The puzzling appearance of an ice cloud seemingly out of thin air has prompted NASA scientists to suggest that a different process than previously thought — possibly similar to one seen over Earth’s poles — could be forming clouds on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Located in Titan’s stratosphere, the cloud is made of a compound of carbon and nitrogen known as dicyanoacetylene (C4N2), an ingredient in the chemical cocktail that colors the giant moon’s hazy, brownish-orange atmosphere. 

Read the rest of this entry »

NASA Prepares to Launch First U.S. Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Posted on Updated on

OSIRIS-REx will travel to near-Earth asteroid Benn on a sample return mission Credits: NASA

  

NASA is preparing to launch its first mission to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth. The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study. Launch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

“This mission exemplifies our nation’s quest to boldly go and study our solar system and beyond to better understand the universe and our place in it,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA science is the greatest engine of scientific discovery on the planet and OSIRIS-REx embodies our directorate’s goal to innovate, explore, discover, and inspire.” 

The 4,650-pound (2,110-kilogram) fully-fueled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins Sept. 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018. After a careful survey of Bennu to characterize the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, OSIRIS-REx will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.

“The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu,” said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure.” 

OSIRIS-REx has five instruments to explore Bennu:

  • OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) – A system consisting of three cameras provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, will observe Bennu and provide global imaging, sample site imaging, and will witness the sampling event.
  • OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – A scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) contributed by the Canadian Space Agency will be used to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu’s surface, and will map the shape of the asteroid.
  • OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) – An instrument provided by Arizona State University in Tempe that will investigate mineral abundances and provide temperature information with observations in the thermal infrared spectrum.
  • OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) – An instrument provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and designed to measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.
  • Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) – A student experiment provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, which will observe the X-ray spectrum to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface and their abundances.

Additionally, the spacecraft has two systems that will enable the sample collection and return:

  • Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – An articulated robotic arm with a sampler head, provided by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, to collect a sample of Bennu’s surface.
  • OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule (SRC) – A capsule with a heat shield and parachutes in which the spacecraft will return the asteroid sample to Earth, provided by Lockheed Martin. 

“Our upcoming launch is the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort from an extremely dedicated team of scientists, engineers, technicians, finance and support personnel,” said OSIRIS-REx Project Manager Mike Donnelly at Goddard. “I’m incredibly proud of this team and look forward to launching the mission’s journey to Bennu and back.”

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space Systems built the spacecraft. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For images, video, and more information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex and http://www.asteroidmission.org

Voyager Mission Celebrates 30 Years Since Uranus

Posted on Updated on

This is an image of the planet Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2 in 1986. The Voyager project is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

Humanity has visited Uranus only once, and that was 30 years ago. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft got its closest look at the mysterious, distant, gaseous planet on Jan. 24, 1986.

Voyager 2 sent back stunning images of the planet and its moons during the flyby, which allowed for about 5.5 hours of close study. The spacecraft got within 50,600 miles (81,500 kilometers) of Uranus during that time.

“We knew Uranus would be different because it’s tipped on its side, and we expected surprises,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Stone has served as project scientist since 1972, continuing in that role today.

Uranus revealed itself to be the coldest planet known in our solar system, even though it’s not the farthest from the sun. This is because it has no internal heat source.

Scientists determined that the atmosphere of Uranus is 85 percent hydrogen and 15 percent helium. There was also evidence of a boiling ocean about 500 miles (800 kilometers) below the cloud tops.

Scientists found that Uranus has a magnetic field different from any they had ever encountered previously. At Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic field is aligned approximately with the rotational axis.

“Then we got to Uranus and saw that the poles were closer to the equator,” Stone said. “Neptune turned out to be similar. The magnetic field was not quite centered with the center of the planet.”

This surface magnetic field of Uranus was also stronger than that of Saturn. Data from Voyager 2 helped scientists determine that the magnetic tail of Uranus twists into a helix stretching 6 million miles (10 million kilometers) in the direction pointed away from the sun. Understanding how planetary magnetic fields interact with the sun is a key part of NASA’s goal to understand the very nature of space. Not only does studying the sun-planet connection provide information useful for space travel, but it helps shed light on the origins of planets and their potential for harboring life.

Voyager 2 also discovered 10 new moons (there are 27 total) and two new rings at the planet, which also proved fascinating. An icy moon called Miranda revealed a peculiar, varied landscape and evidence of active geologic activity in the past. While only about 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter, this small object boasts giant canyons that could be up to 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Miranda also has three unique features called “coronae,” which are lightly cratered collections of ridges and valleys. Scientists think this moon could have been shattered and then reassembled.

Mission planners designed Voyager 2’s Uranus encounter so that the spacecraft would receive a gravity assist to help it reach Neptune. In 1989, Voyager 2 added Neptune to its resume of first-ever looks.

“The Uranus encounter was very exciting for me,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who began her career with the mission while Voyager 2 was en route to Uranus.” It was my first planetary encounter and it was of a planet humanity had never seen up close before. Every new image showed more details of Uranus, and it had lots of surprises for the scientists. I hope another spacecraft will be sent to explore Uranus, to explore the planet in more detail, in my lifetime.”

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made history as the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, crossing the boundary encompassing our solar system’s planets, sun and solar wind. Voyager 2 is also expected to reach interstellar space within the next several years.

The Voyagers were built by JPL, which continues to operate both spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager and http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

 

 

Lowdown on Ceres: Images From Dawn’s Closest Orbit

Posted on Updated on

 

This image of Ceres was taken in Dawn’s low-altitude mapping orbit around a crater chain called Gerber Catena. A 3-D view is also available. Image (Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechCaltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

 

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, cruising in its lowest and final orbit at dwarf planet Ceres, has delivered the first images from its best-ever viewpoint. The new images showcase details of the cratered and fractured surface. 3-D versions of two of these views are also available.

Dawn took these images of the southern hemisphere of Ceres on Dec. 10, at an approximate altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), which is its lowest-ever orbital altitude. Dawn will remain at this altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward. The resolution of the new images is about 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.

Among the striking views is a chain of craters called Gerber Catena, located just west of the large crater Urvara. Troughs are common on larger planetary bodies, caused by contraction, impact stresses and the loading of the crust by large mountains — Olympus Mons on Mars is one example. The fracturing found all across Ceres’ surface indicates that similar processes may have occurred there, despite its smaller size (the average diameter of Ceres is 584 miles, or 940 kilometers). Many of the troughs and grooves on Ceres were likely formed as a result of impacts, but some appear to be tectonic, reflecting internal stresses that broke the crust.

“Why they are so prominent is not yet understood, but they are probably related to the complex crustal structure of Ceres,” said Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.

The images were taken as part of a test of Dawn’s backup framing camera. The primary framing camera, which is essentially identical, began its imaging campaign at this lowest orbit on Dec. 16. Both cameras are healthy.

Dawn’s other instruments also began their intense period of observations this month. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will help identify minerals by looking at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface of Ceres. The gamma ray and neutron detector is also active. By measuring the energies and numbers of gamma rays and neutrons, two components of nuclear radiation, it will help scientists determine the abundances of some elements on Ceres.

Earlier in December, Dawn science team members revealed that the bright material found in such notable craters as Occator is consistent with salt — and proposed that a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite may be present. A different group of Dawn scientists found that Ceres also contains ammoniated clays. Because ammonia is abundant in the outer solar system, this finding suggests that Ceres could have formed in the vicinity of Neptune and migrated inward, or formed in place with material that migrated in from the outer solar system.

“As we take the highest-resolution data ever from Ceres, we will continue to examine our hypotheses and uncover even more surprises about this mysterious world,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first mission outside the Earth-moon system to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It orbited protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

Whopping Galaxy Cluster Spotted with Help of NASA Telescopes

Posted on Updated on

The galaxy cluster called MOO J1142+1527 can be seen here as it existed when light left it 8.5 billion years ago. The red galaxies at the center of the image make up the heart of the galaxy cluster. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini/CARMA

 

Astronomers have discovered a giant gathering of galaxies in a very remote part of the universe, thanks to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The galaxy cluster, located 8.5 billion light-years away, is the most massive structure yet found at such great distances.

Galaxy clusters are gravitationally bound groups of thousands of galaxies, which themselves each contain hundreds of billions of stars. The clusters grow bigger and bigger over time as they acquire new members.

How did these clusters evolve over time? What did they look like billions of years ago? To answer these questions, astronomers look back in time to our youthful universe. Because light takes time to reach us, we can see very distant objects as they were in the past. For example, we are seeing the newfound galaxy cluster — called Massive Overdense Object (MOO) J1142+1527 — as it existed 8.5 billion years ago, long before Earth formed.

As light from remote galaxies makes its way to us, it becomes stretched to longer, infrared wavelengths by the expansion of space. That’s where WISE andSpitzer help out.

For infrared space telescopes, picking out distant galaxies is like plucking ripe cherries from a cherry tree. In the infrared images produced by Spitzer, these distant galaxies stand out as red dots, while closer galaxies look white. Astronomers first combed through the WISE catalog to find candidates for clusters of distant galaxies. WISE catalogued hundreds of millions of objects in images taken over the entire sky from 2010 to 2011.

They then used Spitzer to narrow in on 200 of the most interesting objects, in a project named the “Massive and Distant Clusters of WISE Survey,” or MaDCoWS. Spitzer doesn’t observe the whole sky like WISE, but can see more detail.

“It’s the combination of Spitzer and WISE that lets us go from a quarter billion objects down to the most massive galaxy clusters in the sky,” said Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, lead author of a new study published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

From these observations, MOO J1142+1527 jumped out as one of the most extreme.

The W.M. Keck Observatories and Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii were used to measure the distance to the cluster at 8.5 billion light-years. Using data from the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) telescopes near Owens Valley in California, the scientists were then able to determine that the cluster’s mass is a quadrillion times that of our sun — making it the most massive known cluster that far back in space and time.

MOO J1142+1527 may be one of only a handful of clusters of this heft in the early universe, according to the scientists’ estimates.

“Based on our understanding of how galaxy clusters grow from the very beginning of our universe, this cluster should be one of the five most massive in existence at that time,” said co-author Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for WISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In the coming year, the team plans to sift through more than 1,700 additional galaxy cluster candidates with Spitzer, looking for biggest of the bunch.

“Once we find the most massive clusters, we can start to investigate how galaxies evolved in these extreme environments,” said Gonzalez.

JPL managed and operated WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations and data processing for Spitzer and NEOWISE take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about WISE is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/wise

More information about Spitzer is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer and http://spitzer.caltech.edu

Voyager 1 Helps Solve Interstellar Medium Mystery

Posted on

IMG_4459

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft made history in 2012 by entering interstellar space, leaving the planets and the solar wind behind. But observations from the pioneering probe were puzzling with regard to the magnetic field around it, as they differed from what scientists derived from observations by other spacecraft.

A new study offers fresh insights into this mystery. Writing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and colleagues reanalyzed magnetic field data from Voyager 1 and found that the direction of the magnetic field has been slowly turning ever since the spacecraft crossed into interstellar space. They believe this is an effect of the nearby boundary of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that comes from the sun.

“This study provides very strong evidence that Voyager 1 is in a region where the magnetic field is being deflected by the solar wind,” said Schwadron, lead author of the study.

Researchers predict that in 10 years Voyager 1 will reach a more “pristine” region of the interstellar medium where the solar wind does not significantly influence the magnetic field.

Voyager 1’s crossing into interstellar space meant it had left the heliosphere — the bubble of solar wind surrounding our sun and the planets. Observations from Voyager’s instruments found that the particle density was 40 times greater outside this boundary than inside, confirming that it had indeed left the heliosphere.

But so far, Voyager 1’s observation of the direction of the local interstellar magnetic field is more than 40 degrees off from what other spacecraft have determined. The new study suggests this discrepancy exists because Voyager 1 is in a more distorted magnetic field just outside the heliopause, which is the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium.

“If you think of the magnetic field as a rubber band stretched around a beach ball, that band is being deflected around the heliopause,” Schwadron said.

In 2009, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) discovered a “ribbon” of energetic neutral atoms that is thought to hold clues to the direction of the pristine interstellar magnetic field. The so-called “IBEX ribbon,” which forms a circular arc in the sky, remains mysterious, but scientists believe it is produced by a flow of neutral hydrogen atoms from the solar wind that were re-ionized in nearby interstellar space and then picked up electrons to become neutral again.

The new study uses multiple data sets to confirm that the magnetic field direction at the center of the IBEX ribbon is the same direction as the magnetic field in the pristine interstellar medium. Observations from the NASA/ESA Ulysses and SOHO spacecraft also support the new findings.

“All of these different data sets that have been collected over the last 25 years have been pointing toward the same meeting point in the field,” Schwadron said.

Over time, the study suggests, at increasing distances from the heliosphere, the magnetic field will be oriented more and more toward “true north,” as defined by the IBEX ribbon. By 2025, if the field around Voyager 1 continues to steadily turn, Voyager 1 will observe the same magnetic field direction as IBEX. That would signal Voyager 1’s arrival in a less distorted region of the interstellar medium.

“It’s an interesting way to look at the data. It gives a prediction of how long we’ll have to go before Voyager 1 is in the medium that’s no longer strongly perturbed,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in this study.

While Voyager 1 will continue delivering insights about interstellar space, its twin probe Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into the interstellar medium within the next few years. Voyager 2 will make additional observations of the magnetic field in interstellar space and help scientists refine their estimates.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn. 

Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2, launched before Voyager 1, is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. Voyager 1 is the most distant object touched by human hands.
JPL, a division of Caltech, built the twin Voyager spacecraft and operates them for the Heliophysics Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
For more information about Voyager, visit: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

NASA Completes MESSENGER Mission with Expected Impact on Mercury’s Surface

Posted on

 Artist concept of the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around planet Mercury. Image Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around planet Mercury. Image Credit: NASA

A NASA planetary exploration mission came to a planned, but nonetheless dramatic, end Thursday when it slammed into Mercury’s surface at about 8,750 mph and created a new crater on the planet’s surface.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, have confirmed NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury, as anticipated, at 3:26 p.m. EDT.

Mission control confirmed end of operations just a few minutes later, at 3:40 p.m., when no signal was detected by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) station in Goldstone, California, at the time the spacecraft would have emerged from behind the planet. This conclusion was independently confirmed by the DSN’s Radio Science team, which also was monitoring for a signal from MESSENGER.

“Going out with a bang as it impacts the surface of Mercury, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The MESSENGER mission will continue to provide scientists with a bonanza of new results as we begin the next phase of this mission–analyzing the exciting data already in the archives, and unravelling the mysteries of Mercury.”

Prior to impact, MESSENGER’s mission design team predicted the spacecraft would pass a few miles over a lava-filled basin on the planet before striking the surface and creating a crater estimated to be as wide as 50 feet.

Mercury’s lonely demise on the small, scorched planet closest to the sun went unobserved because the probe hit the side of the planet facing away from Earth, so ground-based telescopes were not able to capture the moment of impact. Space-based telescopes also were unable to view the impact, as Mercury’s proximity to the sun would damage optics.

MESSENGER’s last day of real-time flight operations began at 11:15 a.m., with initiation of the final delivery of data and images from Mercury via a 230-foot (70-meter) DSN antenna located in Madrid, Spain. After a planned transition to a 111-foot (34-meter) DSN antenna in California, at 2:40 p.m., mission operators later confirmed the switch to a beacon-only communication signal at 3:04 p.m.

The mood in the Mission Operations Center at APL was both somber and celebratory as team members watched MESSENGER’s telemetry drop out for the last time, after more than four years and 4,105 orbits around Mercury.

“We monitored MESSENGER’s beacon signal for about 20 additional minutes,” said mission operations manager Andy Calloway of APL. “It was strange to think during that time MESSENGER had already impacted, but we could not confirm it immediately due to the vast distance across space between Mercury and Earth.”

MESSENGER was launched on Aug. 3, 2004, and began orbiting Mercury on March 17, 2011. Although it completed its primary science objectives by March 2012, the spacecraft’s mission was extended two times, allowing it to capture images and information about the planet in unprecedented detail.

During a final extension of the mission in March, referred to as XM2, the team began a hover campaign that allowed the spacecraft to operate within a narrow band of altitudes from five to 35 kilometers from the planet’s surface.

On Tuesday, the team successfully executed the last of seven daring orbit correction maneuvers that kept MESSENGER aloft long enough for the spacecraft’s instruments to collect critical information on Mercury’s crustal magnetic anomalies and ice-filled polar craters, among other features. After running out of fuel, and with no way to increase its altitude, MESSENGER was finally unable to resist the sun’s gravitational pull on its orbit.  

“Today we bid a fond farewell to one of the most resilient and accomplished spacecraft to ever explore our neighboring planets,” said Sean Solomon, MESSENGER’s principal investigator and director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “A resourceful and committed team of engineers, mission operators, scientists, and managers can be extremely proud that the MESSENGER mission has surpassed all expectations and delivered a stunningly long list of discoveries that have changed our views–not only of one of Earth’s sibling planets, but of the entire inner solar system.”

Among its many accomplishments, the MESSENGER mission determined Mercury’s surface composition, revealed its geological history, discovered its internal magnetic field is offset from the planet’s center, and verified its polar deposits are dominantly water ice.

APL built and operated the MESSENGER spacecraft and managed the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Learn more about the accomplishments of NASA’s MESSENGER mission at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENwD31EDFjc and http://www.nasa.gov/messenger