At last week's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, the MESSENGER team held a press briefing to share results from the recent few months of incredibly low-altitude flight over Mercury's surface. The mission will last only about five weeks more.
Dawn has successfully entered orbit at Ceres, becoming the first mission to orbit a dwarf planet and the first to orbit two different bodies beyond Earth. I also have updates on Curiosity, Rosetta, Mars Express, Hayabusa2, the Chang'e program, InSIGHT, and OSIRIS-REx.
From the discovery of a new rock type to a successful flight software upload that should enable the robot field geologist to regain her long-term, flash memory, Opportunity and her team delivered what turned out to be a hugely productive and memorable 133rd month on the Red Planet.
After several months of near-silence, ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission has released on Facebook the first data product from its Methane Sensor For Mars. Don't get too excited about methane yet: there is no positive or negative detection. The news here is that the Methane Sensor for Mars is working, systematically gathering data. They also released several new photos of Mars.
I've been resisting all urges to speculate on what kinds of geological features are present on Ceres, until now. Finally, Dawn has gotten close enough that the pictures it has returned show geology: bright spots, flat-floored craters, and enigmatic grooves.
Curiosity's second drilling campaign at the foot of Mount Sharp is complete. The rover spent about a month near Pink Cliffs, an area at the base of the Pahrump Hills outcrop, drilling and documenting a site named Mojave, where lighter-colored crystals were scattered through a very fine-grained rock.
For the period of time before and after the Philae landing, Rosetta was able to orbit the comet close enough that it was in gravitationally bound orbits, circling the comet's center of gravity. As the comet's activity increases, the spacecraft has to spend most of its time farther away, performing occasional close flybys. The first of these is at 6 kilometers, on February 14.
Brief updates on four ongoing missions: JAXA's Akatsuki and Hayabusa2, and China's Chang'e 3 and Chang'e 5 test vehicle. JAXA has articulated the new science plan for Akatsuki. Hayabusa2's ion engines have checked out successfully. The Yutu rover is still alive on the Moon, and Chang'e 5 test vehicle has successfully tested crucial rendezvous operations in lunar orbit.
On January 24th, something wonderful happened on Mars. Opportunity completed her 11th year of exploring the surface of the Red Planet! The veteran rover couldn't exactly go to Disneyland to celebrate this amazing achievement, so she did what she loves to do – roved on.
As I write this post, New Horizons is nearing the end of a weeklong optical navigation campaign. The last optical navigation images in the weeklong series will be taken tomorrow, but it will likely take two weeks or more for all the data to get to Earth. Two weeks! Why does it take so long?