What's up in the solar system
Winter 2017 edition
Welcome to The Planetary Society's guide to active planetary and human spaceflight missions throughout our solar system! Here's Olaf Frohn's monthly chart of active missions to get you oriented.
Launch: May 20, 2010
Orbit insertion: December 7, 2015
Akatsuki (あかつき, 暁?, literally "dawn") is a Japanese space probe exploring Venus. The mission reached Venus on December 7, 2010, but failed to enter the planet's orbit. A second attempt in December 2015, using only attitude control thrusters, was successful.
Mission scientists have discovered the source of a smile-shaped feature that Akatsuki discovered in Venus' clouds in Dec. 2015: the underlying terrain of Aphrodite Terra.
International Space Station
Earth-orbiting research laboratory
Soyuz MS-02 crew
Shane Kimbrough (NASA)
Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos)
Andrey Borisenko (Roscosmos)
Soyuz MS-03 crew
Peggy Whitson (NASA)
Thomas Pesquet (ESA)
Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos)
Expedition 50 ends in April when the crew of Soyuz MS-02 undocks and returns to Earth. Soyuz MS-04, carrying Jack Fischer (NASA) and Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos), is also scheduled to launch later that month.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Lunar orbiter (NASA)
Launch: June 18, 2009
Orbit insertion: June 23, 2009
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is NASA's first mission designed to capture high-resolution images of the entire surface of the Moon since the end of the Lunar Orbiter program in 1967.
Deputy project scientist Noah Petro says LRO "is in awesome shape, performing nominally on all counts." He says 30 kilograms of fuel remain, of which only a few kilograms are needed every year for reaction wheel momentum dumping. (When spacecraft use spinning wheels to point their instruments and antennae, the wheels build up too much speed over time; they brake the wheels and fire the thrusters to counter the braking in order to reduce the spinning speed.)
While still planning full science campaigns with all 7 of its instruments, the mission is also putting out a lot of publications. Volume 2 of a special issue of Icarus is coming out in February, and Volume 3 later in 2017. "I’m told it’s the largest special issue Icarus has ever published," Petro says.Jump back to top
Lunar orbiter and rover (CNSA, China)
Launch: December 1, 2013
Orbit insertion: December 6, 2013
Rover landing: December 14, 2013
Chang'e 3 is part of the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, consisting of a robotic lander and China's first lunar rover. The Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover successfully landed and took images of the lunar surface, but its mobility system failed, leaving the rover unable to move but still alive.
Chang'e 3 woke up on December 9, 2016 for its 38th lunar day of operations. Chinese space program watcher Andrew Jones says to expect some Chang'e 3 science in March, around the time of the Chinese parliamentary session. Yutu's status is unclear.Jump back to top
Asteroid sample return (NASA)
Launch: September 8, 2016
Projected arrival: Aug. 17, 2018
Return to Earth: Planned for 2023
The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Indentification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is an asteroid study and sample return mission to the carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The goal of the mission is to learn more about the formation of the Solar System, planet formation, and the source of the organic compounds that led to the formation of life.
OSIRIS-REx remains on its Outbound Cruise phase. It will begin searching for Earth-Trojan asteroids February 9.
Asteroid sample return (JAXA)
Launch: December 3, 2014
En route, projected arrival: Planned for July 2018
Return to Earth: Planned for December 2020
The follow-on mission for Hayabusa, Hayabusa2 is planned to survey the asteroid Ryugu for a year and a half before returning to Earth with a surface sample. The mission includes a small lander called the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT), built by the German Aerospace Center.
Hayabusa2 recently celebrated its 777th mission day, as it slowly cruises toward its July 2018 rendezvous with asteroid Ryugu.
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
Mars orbiter (ESA)
Launch: March 14, 2016
Mars orbit insertion: October 19, 2016
This first mission of ESA's ExoMars program is a Trace Gas Orbiter, plus an entry, descent and landing demonstrator named Schiaparelli (which transmitted data during its descent before crashing on the martian surface). The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA's contribution to subsequent missions to Mars.
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter won't perform any science in 2017, because the year (plus some of 2018) is devoted to aerobraking the spacecraft into a circular, 400-kilometer-altitude orbit, a feat that ESA has not performed before. Read this informative ESA post for details.
Mars orbiter (NASA)
Launch: November 18, 2013
Mars orbit insertion: September 22, 2014
MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, has provided first-of-its-kind measurements to address key questions about Mars climate and habitability and improve understanding of dynamic processes in the upper Martian atmosphere and ionosphere.
Principal investigator Bruce Jakosky says the MAVEN team is doing the same kinds of observations they did in the first year, looking for changes now that the Sun is in a different part of its cycle. They've also begun new kinds of observations, "including radio occultations, high-resolution ultraviolet imaging, and focused observations over crustal magnetic anomalies." Look for lots of science publications from the team over the next year.
Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)
Mars orbiter (ISRO)
Launch: November 5, 2013
Mars orbit insertion: September 24, 2014
Sometimes referred to by the nickname "Mangalyaan," the Mars Orbiter Mission is India's first interplanetary spacecraft. It is primarily a technology demonstration mission that carries a small, 15-kilogram payload of 5 science instruments. It entered orbit at Mars in September 2014, just two days after the arrival of NASA's MAVEN mission. The orbit is highly elliptical, from 387 to 80,000 kilometers.
Mars Orbiter Mission is still returning data, though there was sad news last month that its methane sensor data is not likely to tell us anything about Mars' methane. Science was never really the point of this mission, and now ISRO is planning a second Mars orbiter, with a proper science package, to be launched in 2018.
Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)
Mars rover (NASA)
Launch: November 26, 2011
Landing: August 6, 2012
Curiosity is exploring Gale Crater, the location of a 5-plus-kilometer-tall mound of layered sedimentary material, which the rover found was at least partially deposited in a lake setting. The rover has also made key discoveries, such as the detection of organic material. It is now entering the foothills of the mound, dubbed "Mount Sharp" (or Aeolis Mons), where it will start its ascent.
Lauren Edgar summarized the rover's eventful 2016: "We have drilled six holes, performed two scoops, driven 3 km, and climbed 85 vertical meters!" The team hopes for an equally productive 2017, heading southward toward Hematite Ridge, drilling every time they have climb 25 meters in elevation through the Murray formation. The rover and its instruments are in very good shape as the mission enters its second extension.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Mars orbiter (NASA)
Launch: August 12, 2005
Mars arrival: March 10, 2006
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is searching for evidence of past water on Mars, using the most powerful camera and spectrometer ever sent to Mars. Its cameras are also helping in the search for landing sites for future Mars rovers and landers, and to monitor martian weather on a day-to-day basis.
Like Mars Express and Odyssey, MRO is aging, but its instruments are enormously capable and its relatively huge radio dish is continuously sending back vast amounts of data from all instruments. The theme of its current mission extension is "Mars in transition," and many of its observations are focused on seasonal changes in the atmosphere and on the surface, as well as longer-term changes involving subsurface ice. Its rapid data releases are forming the basis for countless scientific papers.
Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity
Mars rover (NASA)
Launch: July 7, 2003
Landing: January 24, 2004
Opportunity landed in Meridiani Planum in 2004, immediately finding the hematite mineral that had been seen from space by Mars Global Surveyor. Thirteen years later, the rover is now a teenager and continuing to explore the 22-kilometer-diameter crater Endeavour.
Opportunity will spend the first part of 2017 making its slow way up to and along the rim of Endeavour crater. The rover's goal is the top of an ancient, now-dry gully that could have been carved by water or debris flows.
Mars orbiter (ESA)
Launch: June 2, 2003
Mars arrival: December 26, 2003
Mars Express has been orbiting the planet since 2003. Upon arrival, it deployed a small lander named Beagle that unfortunately suffered a crash landing. The spacecraft continues to return imagery and science data.
Europe's venerable Mars Express is in its sixth extended mission, doing new science observations by coordinating work on the Martian atmosphere with NASA's MAVEN; both high-flying spacecraft are doing radio occultations, probing Mars' atmosphere in different locations with their radio signals. They have also improved their ability to use MARSIS to image the subsurface of Mars.
Links: Planetary Society mission coverage - NSSDC - Wikipedia - ESA - HRSC images - VMC images on Flickr - Twitter (VMC instrument)
Mars orbiter (NASA)
Launch: April 7, 2001
Mars arrival: October 24, 2001
Mars Odyssey is capturing images of the Martian surface at resolutions between those of Viking and Mars Global Surveyor, and is making both daytime and nighttime observations of the surface in thermal infrared wavelengths, at resolutions higher than ever before. Odyssey also serves as a communications relay for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
Mars Odyssey is back in action after a safe mode event that occured on December 26. Despite being the oldest member of the Mars fleet, Odyssey is still doing great science from its new morning orbit, is the main data relay satellite for Opportunity, and is relied upon by the Curiosity team for timely relay of data critical for planning operations.
Ceres orbiter (NASA)
Launch: September 27, 2007
Vesta arrival: July 16, 2011
Ceres arrival: April 2015
After flying past Mars on February 4, 2009, Dawn crept up on asteroid Vesta, becoming the first orbiter of a main-belt asteroid. After surveying the asteroid from many altitudes, Dawn departed Vesta in the summer of 2012, embarking on a journey that ended with orbit insertion at Ceres in April 2015. The mission is still currently orbiting Ceres.
Dawn is now well into its extended mission at Ceres, and has transitioned to a sixth science orbit that's quite different to ones it's traveled in before, in which it will gather measurements useful for calibrating data acquired at lower altitudes. The orbit is elliptical and slow, taking eight days to travel from 7520 to 9350 kilometers above Ceres. The orbit is also nearly aligned with Ceres' terminator, so its views of the dwarf planet's surface will show dramatic lighting once imaging resumes this month. Seasonal change has brought sunlight to the south polar regions, and Dawn will begin mapping craters there to find permanently shadowed regions that may trap water and other volatile molecules.
Jupiter polar orbiter (NASA)
Launch: August 5, 2011
Jupiter arrival: July 4, 2016
Following a lengthy cruise and October 2013 Earth flyby, Juno is surveying Jupiter from a polar orbit, carrying a suite of instruments designed to study the planet's interior. Its science mission does not require a camera, but it does carry one, specifically designed to capture unusual and beautiful views of Jupiter from its unusual polar perspective for public pleasure.
The mission is not using its main thrusters for the foreseeable future, as engineers continue to investigate a problem with its valves. If it does not switch to its planned two-week science orbit, Juno will have seven perijove science passes over Jupiter's poles in 2017, on February 2, March 27, May 19, July 11, September 1, October 24, and December 16. JunoCam has begun allowing public voting on Jupiter image targeting, with voting periods about two weeks before each perijove pass. The next one opens on January 19. This image of a white storm on Jupiter was one result of the first round of public voting at the December 11 perijove pass.
Saturn orbiter (NASA)
Launch: October 15, 1997
Orbit insertion: July 1, 2004
Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and deployed a probe named Huygens to land on Titan's surface. Since then, Cassini has continued to survey Saturn and its moons. The spacecraft's mission has been extended twice, but will end on September 15, 2017, after 293 complete orbits of Saturn with the spacecraft's plunge into the atmosphere.
Cassini is now in its F-ring orbit phase, passing through the gap between F and G rings on each periapsis pass. As with Juno, the best stuff comes during the brief period around each periapsis; periapses happen roughly weekly for the rest of the mission. The orbit is giving Cassini fabulous views of the north polar hexagon and ring structures and will also afford the best-ever opportunities to image the tiny moons that are embedded in the ring system. Highlight ring-moon images include Daphnis on January 16; Epimetheus and Mimas on January 30; Epimetheus and the propeller Santos-Dumont on February 21; Pan on March 7; the propeller Earhart on March 22; and Atlas on April 12. On April 22, Cassini changes its orbit periapsis, beginning the proximal orbits, with its periapsis passing in between the D ring and the planet's cloud tops. Saturn will reach northern summer solstice on May 24, and opposition on June 15, giving us spectacular open views of its rings through Earth-based telescopes. On September 15, Cassini will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, ending the mission.
Pluto and Kuiper Belt flyby (NASA)
Launch: January 19, 2006
Pluto flyby: July 14, 2015
Flyby of object 2014 MU69: Jan. 1, 2019
After a nine-year cruise, New Horizons flew past Pluto in July 2015, returning never-before-seen images of the Kuiper Belt world. It is now on course for a flyby of object 2014 MU69 on New Year's Day in 2019.
Having completed transmission of all the Pluto data to Earth, New Horizons is now focused on Kuiper belt and heliosphere science. Principal investigator Alan Stern said there will be two phases of distant Kuiper belt observations this year, one in January and one toward the end of the year. January targets include Pholus, Huya, 2002 KX14, Haumea, and Makemake. End-of-year targets include 2012 HZ84, 2011 HJ103, 2012 HE85, 2014 OE394, 2002 MS4, and Quaoar. In between the two science phases, from March to September, the spacecraft will hibernate, but it will still be collecting dust and plasma data even while in hibernation, as it did on its cruise to Pluto.
Voyager 1 and 2
Interstellar probes (NASA)
Voyager 1 launch: September 5, 1977
Voyager 2 launch: August 20, 1977
Following groundbreaking flybys of the outer planets in the 1970s and 80s, the Voyager probes are now exploring the boundary of the heliosphere, where the solar system gives way to the interstellar medium.
Voyager 1 and 2 are approximately 138 AU—20.5 billion kilometers—from Earth.