Emily LakdawallaFeb 29, 2016

What's up in solar system exploration: March 2016 edition

Welcome to my monthly inventory of the 20-plus spacecraft actively exploring our solar system. Beyond the "routine" of mission operations scattered across planets, highlights of this month include the impending launch of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander, currently planned for March 14, and the resumption of regular VMC Mars images by Mars Express. Also, expect plenty of planetary science news coming out of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference running from March 21 to 25 (of which I'll be attending the first three days). Before I run down all the missions, here's Olaf Frohn's summary diagram:

Earth Launches and Landings (contributed by Jason Davis)

March starts with an important International Space Station milestone. One-year crewmembers Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return to Earth March 2 with Sergey Volkov, who brought a fresh Soyuz capsule to the station back in September. That will mark the start of Expedition 47, and on March 19, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonauts Oleg Skriprochka and Alexey Ovchinin will launch in a Soyuz from Baikonur to return the station’s crew complement to six. The ISS crew should get one—maybe two—cargo deliveries this month. United Launch Alliance is launching an Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship on March 22. A Russian Progress mission has also appeared on a few launch schedules for March 31, but NASA has yet to publicly confirm that date.

During the first half of March, there could be a span of four Earth orbital launches within five days. An Ariane 5 kicks off the action with the EUTELSAT 65 West A communications satellite March 9. A day later, India is scheduled to launch the IRNISS 1F navigation satellite, according to Spaceflight Now. On March 12, Russia is slated to fly the Resurs-P3 Earth-observing satellite from Baikonur. Finally, India may cap the month with another navigation satellite launch. IRNISS 1G is on the schedule for March 31, also according to Spaceflight Now.

Launching toward Mars

Some time between March 14 and 25, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will blast off for Mars from Kazakhstan. The Schiaparelli lander was united to the orbiter on February 16, and ExoMars has now been fueled. The first launch opportunity is at 09:31 UT / 05:31 EDT / 02:31 PDT. (Americans, take note that Daylight Saving Time begins the day before the launch, so set your alarm clocks appropriately; European daylight time does not start until March 27.)

Inner Solar System

Updates on JAXA's Akatsuki have been limited. If I'm interpreting the Google translations of their official Twitter account correctly, they have spent the last month working with the spacecraft's ultrastable oscillator, part of its radio science experiment. According to the final paragraph of this update, Akatsuki will begin science observations in April.

Earth's Neighborhood

Last month, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter performed some radar experiments using its Mini-RF instrument to receive transmissions broadcast from the Goldstone Deep Space Network station and bounced off the Moon. "These types of measurements will help scientists better understand where ice may be buried near the lunar poles," they said via Twitter. Here on Earth there's a new exhibit of huge Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter prints up at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC; you can view an online version of the exhibit here, but there's nothing quite like seeing these enormous photos printed and displayed as the museum-quality photographs that they are.

I had begun to think that the life of the Yutu rover was over, but amateur deep space radio enthusiast UHF Satcom said on February 22 that "Yutu Lunar Rover is back in town! A massive signal on 8462.053MHz complete with sidebands, maybe low-rate data." The latest word from Chang'e 3 is that it was awake and talking to Earth on February 18. Lunar mapper Phil Stooke noticed that a photo included in that Chang'e 3 news update appears to have been taken by Yutu in March 2014 from its final parking spot, and he had not seen it published before.

According to an email from scientist Jasper Halekas, the ARTEMIS probes are currently in good health and operating as planned in very stable, highly elliptical orbits; "we should be able to keep them there for years to come." They are focused on heliophysics, working cooperatively with the other THEMIS probes, the Van Allen Probes, and the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, but by virtue of their location in space they study the interaction of the solar wind with the Moon as well.

I don't have any updates on the status of the other active Chang'e spacecraft or of Hayabusa2. Hayabusa2 has a long cruise ahead of it, planned to reach asteroid Ryugu in mid-2018.


I don't yet have any updates on Odyssey in its new 06:45 sun-synchronous orbit -- maybe next month.

Mars Express has been quiet because it was in "eclipse season," a period when its orbit takes it behind Mars as seen from the Sun for up to 40 minutes per orbit, forcing the spacecraft to rely on batteries. This particular eclipse season happened when Mars was near aphelion, when it doesn't generate as much power even when it is seeing sunlight. That impacts data return (because the radio transmitter consumes a lot of power). One consequence of being in eclipse season is that the VMC (the Mars Webcam) has been off for several months, but it should be back on as of today! All this is explained in a lengthy and informative ESA blog post by Simon Wood.

This month will mark an astonishing 10 years in orbit for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In honor of the anniversary, project scientist Rich Zurek will be delivering a webcast lecture on March 24. The flash memory rewrite that I mentioned in last month's roundup was completed successfully in early February, and the spacecraft has resumed routine operations.

Just today, the MAVEN orbiter released this really cool image of Phobos, captured in two distinct ultraviolet wavelengths. According to a feature on the MAVEN website, the mission made several close approaches to Phobos in November and early December of last year, approaching to within 500 kilometers of the moon. MAVEN is the only NASA orbiter that can approach Phobos so closely; Mars Express is also doing regular Phobos observations. MAVEN's next two deep-dip campaigns have now been planned for early June and late July of this year.

It's midwinter for Opportunity so there has not been much driving, but it's enjoying spectacular views from a perch that hopefully looks more precarious than it actually is, on the side of Knudsen Ridge, in Marathon Valley. These images aren't just for their scenery, of course; they are guiding the choices of science targets for the MI and APXS instruments, work that Opportunity began last week. Total odometry for Opportunity is now 42.66 kilometers. Keep up with Opportunity at the mission's official status update site.

On the other side of Mars, Curiosity has left Namib Dune behind and is getting ready to drive up and on to the Naukluft plateau. Once atop the plateau Curiosity should soon get the first clear view of the Murray buttes and the passage through the gap in the sand dunes. There is no news about the status of the anomaly with the CHIMRA mechanism in the robotic arm turret, which is responsible for sieving, portioning, and delivering samples to the analytical instruments. Fortunately the priority for Curiosity at the moment is to drive, drive, drive.

Beyond Mars

Comet activity at Churyumov-Gerasimenko is quieting down as the comet recedes from the Sun. That means that Rosetta has been able to approach the comet more closely than in recent months, and is mapping the southern hemisphere from a distance of 35 kilometers. According to an update on the ESA blog, the comet morphology mappers have named three more regions on 67P in the south pole: Bes, Geb, and Neith. They are finding the southern hemisphere to be less dusty than the north, making it easy to see structural detail on the comet.

Dawn is now orbiting Ceres at the lowest altitude it'll ever achieve: an average 385 kilometers. Check the Photojournal for the latest images, I am particularly taken by this oblique view across Ceres' limb. Dawn is so close to Ceres that we can begin to feel like we're getting a view out the airplane window!

Juno is now 127 days and 70 million kilometers away from Jupiter. Amateur astronomers continue to pour images into the JunoCam image database to help the team plan future imaging.

Cassini has just begun Rev 233, which has an orbit inclination of 20.6 degrees. There are no targeted flybys on this orbit; the next one, of Titan, is on April 4. Cassini has been using its newly inclined orbit to capture gorgeous views of the open rings. The season has now advanced to the point that Saturn's shadow no longer intersects the outer edge of the rings; it makes Saturn look much like it did when the Voyagers flew past.

New Horizons continues to downlink data from its July flyby. Last week saw the completion of the downlink of the highest-resolution images that New Horizons took of Pluto. The next target they plan to observe is 1994 JR1, in April. They continue to release captioned images every Thursday. The most recent few images include geologic maps; I will write more about their mapping work and scientific interpretation from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference toward the end of this month.

Finally, the Voyagers are still going, going, going. Voyager 1 is at 134.2 AU from the Sun, and Voyager 2 is at 110.5 AU.

That's it for March. Stay tuned for another roundup of deep-space exploration in April!


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