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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.
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Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.
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M-type asteroids are high albedo (i.e shiny) asteroids made partially or mostly of metal. Of all of M-type asteroids currently known in the solar system, 16 Psyche is the most massive.  It is a hunk of iron and nickel (and other heavy metals?) which has a diameter of 250 kilometers.  Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the exposed core of a planet approximately the size of Mars which was obliterated by a catastrophic impact.  The asteroid is named after the intrepid mortal who found love and ultimately apotheosis in an “Eyes Wide Shut” type Greek myth of great suspense, horror, and beauty.

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Are you curious to know more about 16 Psyche based on this description?  I certainly hope you are, because NASA has just announced future missions for the 2020s and 16 Psyche is on the list. As currently conceived, the Psyche exploration mission will send a robot probe powered by solar electric propulsion out to the obliterated core to examine the planetoid.  The probe will be equipped with a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to find out more about the composition and history of the enigmatic relic.

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Of course other long term aspects of the mission are of interest as well.  Although we have not yet mastered nuclear fusion, safe comprehensive control of such boundless energy is probably only 20 years or so away [winky icon].  What if humankind had sophisticated manufacturing robots and near infinite energy?  In such circumstances 8 million cubic kilometers of steel might come in very handy indeed.  So far the good news keeps rolling in for 2017.  This Psyche mission can’t happen fast enough for my taste.

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As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).

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The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).

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Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).

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 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!

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Last week I meant to include an elegiac post to Rosetta, an astonishing space mission, which stretched out over a dozen years and logged 4.9 billion miles of travel.  Rosetta was launched way back in 2004.  It was originally supposed to rendezvous with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011, but problems with the launch in Guyana caused the probe to miss the launch window for the primary mission.  The ESA changed the mission parameters so that the spacecraft ended up exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead (this second comet was functionally the same as the first—except for a much more difficult-to-say name). During its journey to the comet, Rosetta also flew by Mars and two asteroids.  After flying by Mars in February of 2007, the craft flew by Earth in November of 2007.  It caused a miniature panic when astronomers of the Catalina sky survey spotted it and misidentified it as a 20 meter near-Earth asteroid on a possible collision path with Earth!

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The spacecraft arrived at  Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August of 2014 and the most famous…and infamous…part of the mission took place in November of that same year, when Rosetta launched the Philae lander to harpoon itself to the comet.  Although Philae (which was named after a Rosetta-like obelisk with the same text in Greek and Egyptian) succeeded in landing and not bouncing off into the void, sadly the little lander came down in a miserable crevasse.  Scientists intimately studied pictures of the comet (from Rosetta) until they found the lander in the icy chaos.  It was a pretty ghastly scene which reminded me of my sock drawer (if it were dropped from space onto Tungnafellsjökull glacier).

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(See it there at bottom right?)

Rosetta’s long and mostly successful mission came to an end last Friday in a truly operatic fashion. Mission controllers chose to use the last vestiges of power to smash the orbiter into the comet! Well, although I am saying “smashed” what actually happened was more like a grandmother walking into a snowbank.  The lander was lowered onto the comet at about one mile per hour. Except, despite the fact that Rosetta traveled more than 5 billion miles (“uphill both ways”) it was not designed for landing and its last communication was a photo just above the comet surface.  RIP Rosetta, you were one good probe!

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Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).

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The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!

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The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.

Venera 3 Lander

Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.
Venera_3

The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.

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Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?

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Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.

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Pluto (Photo from NASA's New Horizons mission)

Pluto (Photo from NASA’s New Horizons mission)

As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.

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Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?

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I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.

This graphic is old...What next?

This graphic is old…What next?

There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.

"Champagne in Space" by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

“Champagne in Space” by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).

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Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).

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I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

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