Emily LakdawallaJul 01, 2016

What's up in the solar system, July 2016 edition: Juno to enter orbit, NASA missions all extended

On Earth, it's been a few months that have battered my optimism. Writing this month's roundup of the ongoing activities of our planet's robotic emissaries across the solar system has improved my mood. There is so much routine science, so many exciting ongoing adventures, so many daring new missions to explore previously unknown places, being conducted by so many nations, sharing so much open-access data with the entire world.

Highlights this month include the impending arrival of Juno at Jupiter: for a short 15 months, we will have two simultaneous orbiters at giant planets. New Horizons and Dawn have both just been granted mission extensions, as have all of NASA's Mars missions and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Rosetta and New Horizons both just released a ton of scientific data to public data archives, and Cassini will be following shortly with its quarterly release. Currently, there are something like 19 spacecraft performing routine science operations (Akatsuki, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, possibly Chang'e 3 and Chang'e 5 T1, ARTEMIS, Odyssey, Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Curiosity, Mars Orbiter Mission, MAVEN, Dawn, Rosetta, Cassini, New Horizons, and the Voyagers), while Juno, Hayabusa2, and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter are cruising toward their destinations.

Here's Olaf Frohn's chart of active space missions.

What's Up in the Solar System diagram by Olaf Frohn (updated for July 2019)
What's Up in the Solar System diagram by Olaf Frohn (updated for July 2019) A diagram, updated once a month, of active space missions traveling beyond Earth orbit. Contains links to past diagrams.Image: Olaf Frohn

Earth Launches and Landings (contributed by Jason Davis)

The International Space Station crew roster returns to full strength this month, when NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Anatoli Ivanishin of Roscosmos launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 7 at 1:36 UTC (9:36 p.m. EDT July 6). This will be the first crewed flight of the upgraded Soyuz MS series spacecraft. As such, Russian flight controllers in Korolyov are sending the crew on a slower, two-day rendezvous trajectory, allowing ample time to test out the vehicle's new subsystems. The new crew will arrive on July 9.

The Progress MS cargo freighter, which is currently attached to the station's Pirs docking port, will perform an undocking and re-docking test today (July 1), before leaving the ISS for good on July 3. The spacecraft will then be destructively de-orbited over the South Pacific.

There may also be a three-day cargo logistics flurry later in the month. On July 17, Progress MS-03 launches from Baikonur on a two-day trip to the station. The very next day, SpaceX's CRS-9 Dragon cargo spacecraft may launch from Florida. That would put Progress's arrival date at July 19, and Dragon's at July 20. 

Dragon is bringing a new International Docking Adapter for future commercial crew vehicles in its trunk (the last IDA was lost during the 2015 Falcon 9 disaster). A spacewalk to complete installation of the IDA wouldn't likely be scheduled until August, NASA officials say.

Beyond ISS traffic, July looks to be a quiet month. The classified NROL-61 mission launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral on July 28. (The National Reconnaissance Office is known for their outlandish mission patches, but seriously, don't miss this one). 

Spaceflight Now also reports China may launch a technology demonstrator satellite this month that will test out secure quantum communications.

Inner Solar System

In orbit at Venus, Akatsuki successfully got through solar conjunction early last month and is back into routine Venus observations. To learn more about the plans for the new Akatsuki mission at Venus, you can read an open-access article recently published in the journal Earth, Planets, and Space: Nakamura et al., "AKATSUKI returns to Venus." The same issue also has an article by Satoh et al. on the IR2 camera, which is studying Venus' middle- to low-altitude atmosphere.

Earth's Neighborhood

This month, new moon is on July 4 and full moon is on July 19. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is still actively exploring the Moon, having just celebrated its seventh anniversary in orbit. Last month's cool image posts included two geologic maps, highlighting the science that can be derived from the orbiter's lovely photos. One of them is a map of a potential landing site for the Luna-Glob mission, planned for launch in the mid-2020s.

I don't have any updates on ARTEMIS beyond what I wrote in February, or on Chang'e 3 or Chang'e 5 T1 since April. Amateur radio operators who listen for Chang'e 3 signals haven't heard anything from it or Yutu for a while.

Near-Earth Asteroids

Hayabusa2 is now 54 million kilometers from Earth and 77 million kilometers from Ryugu. Today the mission announced a Ryugu observation campaign, inviting really expert amateur observers to attempt to image Ryugu (which will be just 18th magnitude) between now and August 15, the last opportunity to do so before Hayabusa2's arrival. They've also been testing higher-frequency Ka-band communications with the Deep Space Network, in anticipation of using that band to return Ryugu data once the science mission starts. Follow Hayabusa2's journey with this interactive visualization tool, and enjoy this cartoon of Hayabusa2 celebrating its 555th day in space!

On the Way to Mars

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is halfway to Mars. It has been testing out its instruments, including its camera (see photo below) and the instruments on the Schiaparelli lander. A trajectory correction maneuver is planned for July. Orbit insertion will be on October 19; Schiaparelli will land on the same day. Here's an overview of what to expect on arrival day. I've heard rumors that the Opportunity rover team is working on plans to attempt to photograph Schiaparelli as it lands, come October. It'd just be a single bright pixel if it works, but even that would be very cool.

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter cruise image of Mars
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter cruise image of Mars The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter acquired its first image of Mars on June 13, 2016 as part of its extensive instrument commissioning en route to the Red Planet. The line-of-sight distance to Mars on was 41 million kilometers, giving an image resolution of 460 km/pixel. The planet is roughly 34 arcseconds in diameter at this distance. The Tharsis region of Mars, home to the planet’s largest volcanoes, faces the spacecraft in this view.Image: ESA / Roscosmos / ExoMars / CaSSIS / UniBE


Mars' northern autumnal equinox is coming up (on July 4), so the days are getting longer and warmer at the southern hemisphere landing sites of the two Mars rovers. We're still relatively close to Mars, so Mars missions are enjoying high data rates and transmitting lots of good data to Earth, while Mars is still a brilliant orange in Earth's evening sky.

Mars Odyssey's 15th Mars arrival anniversary is coming up on October 24. Recent image releases at the THEMIS website have included many false color images generated from older data, intended to highlight compositional differences across Mars' surface.

Last month Mars Express updated the software for its UHF radio transceiver to allow it to be compatible with Schiaparelli's radio transmitter so that Mars Express will be able to record the lander's transmissions. To prepare for that event, Mars Express is practicing by communicating with Curiosity. The Mars Webcam has been active lately, with the most recent images dating to June 28, showing a pretty thin crescent Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter announced last month that its long-term observations of the temperature of the Martian atmosphere have enabled Martian meteorologists to make a big step forward in understanding global dust storm behavior, which should enable better weather predictions in the future. The MARCI weather reports seem to be on hiatus, with the last one released two weeks ago. My favorite HiRISE image release from this month is this one of "Glowing Gullies in Kaiser Crater Dunes". Several recent releases are looking at south polar terrain that is defrosting as spring arrives, like this one. And they captured a view of Curiosity yet again, this one taken on sol 1291 (March 25, 2016).

MAVEN completed its fifth deep-dip campaign into Mars' atmosphere as planned last month, beginning it on June 9 just as a solar event hit Mars. The campaign ended on June 30; the next one is now planned to begin August 3.

As of yesterday, sol 4420, Opportunity has operated twice as long on Mars as its sister Spirit did. Last month, Opportunity completed scientific work in Marathon Valley and is now on its way out, ready to drive further south along the rim of Endeavour crater. The power situation continues to be very good, with the solar panels generating around 650 watt-hours daily, and atmospheric opacity hovering around 0.6.

On the other side of Mars, Curiosity is also road-tripping. Since my last update, the rover has covered about 200 meters of distance south through the first break among the Bagnold dune field. It has to drive a total of about a kilometer (as the orbiter flies) to get beyond the first line of dunes, then another kilometer to cross an interdune region of bedrock, then another kilometer-plus of dune-threading before it will arrive at the next change in bedrock type.

I don't have any updates on the Mars Orbiter Mission since June.

Beyond Mars

We now have an official date for the end of the Rosetta mission: September 30. But the finale will begin in mid-August, as Rosetta shifts into a series of elliptical orbits that bring it progressively closer to the comet. There was a large data release from the OSIRIS science camera last month. It'll be a while before I can update my online indexes to the OSIRIS data -- in the meantime, you can browse the new releases through these links: MTP009 - MTP010 - MTP011 - MTP012 - MTP013. The last one includes the zero-phase flyby where Rosetta saw its own shadow, on February 14, 2015. As always, check here for the latest NavCam image releases and here for the OSIRIS image of the day.

Rosetta's shadow
Rosetta's shadow This sequence of 12 images taken by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on February 14, 2015 captures the spacecraft's shadow against the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The images were taken about six kilometers above the comet’s surface. At that altitude, Rosetta did not completely block the Sun as seen from the surface, so the shadow is fuzzy rather than sharp and spans about 20 by 50 meters. The image frames are about 228 meters across. They appear to change in brightness because OSIRIS was rotating different-color filters across the optics from one image to the next.Image: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

Yesterday, Dawn completed its prime mission. The mission had been campaigning to visit another asteroid (145 Adeona) in an extended mission, but NASA announced today that Dawn will remain at Ceres. While this may disappoint some, realize that NASA could also have elected not to continue Dawn, as the mission was competing against lots of others for extended-mission funding, so it's good news it's being extended. As always, check the Photojournal for the latest images!

Juno is now just 3 days and less than 4 million kilometers from Jupiter orbit insertion. As of yesterday, it's on autopilot; Earth will just wait and watch it go through orbit insertion, hopefully successfully, on July 4 at 20:53 local California time (July 5 03:53, UTC). I'll be doing lots of Juno updates over the next few days; read all my coverage here. While you wait, you can visit the JunoCam website to discuss features visible in amateur astronomers' Jupiter images, and the JunoCam team really wants you to participate!

Near the end of approach
Near the end of approach A JunoCam image from June 28, 2016 from a distance of 6.2 million kilometers shows Jupiter and three of its largest moons. From left to right, they are Ganymede, Io, and Europa.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS

Cassini has just (on June 29) passed through periapsis on its Rev 237, just outside the orbit of Rhea. Its orbit is inclined to enable it to study the rings from high above and below. It's also studying Saturn's polar aurora. Now that Juno is arriving at Jupiter, we'll have two spacecraft studying two different giant planets' response to the same solar weather at the same time, which is pretty cool. During the period around Juno's arrival, Cassini won't be able to use the 70-meter dishes of the Deep Space Network to return data, so its data volume will be lower than normal. It reaches apoapsis on July 11, beginning Rev 238, and periapsis again on July 23. Just after that, it will fly by Titan on July 25 at an altitude of 975 kilometers, a relatively close encounter that will tip Cassini's orbit to an inclination of 48.7 degrees and shorten its orbital period to only 16 days, the same as Titan's. The close flyby will enable it to acquire a radar swath across Titan, the last that Cassini will take of Titan's high southern latitudes. As always, check the raw images page for the latest views from Cassini's cameras. (Thanks to Jason Perry for the information in this paragraph.)

New Horizons' extended mission to Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 has been approved! And that's not the only great New Horizons news this month. The first LORRI and MVIC data releases from New Horizons' Pluto flyby are finally here! It includes 2209 LORRI images, 61 of them from the "core" phase of the encounter when all the highest-resolution images were acquired. There are 254 MVIC images, 12 of them from the core phase. I've downloaded the data set and will try to get a handle on it soon. The latest team blog posts are one by Rick Binzel on writing the new textbook on the Pluto system, and one by Alex Parker on Canadian contributions to the mission. Here's my favorite of the images they released last month:

Pluto's dark side
Pluto's dark side New Horizons took this stunning image of Pluto only a few minutes after closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image was obtained at a high phase angle -- that is, with the sun on the other side of Pluto, as viewed by New Horizons. Seen here, sunlight filters through and illuminates Pluto's complex atmospheric haze layers. The southern portions of the nitrogen ice plains informally named Sputnik Planum, as well as mountains of the informally named Norgay Montes, can also be seen across Pluto's crescent at the top of the image. Looking back at Pluto with images like this gives New Horizons scientists information about Pluto's hazes and surface properties that they can't get from images taken on approach. The image was obtained by Ralph MVIC approximately 21,550 kilometers from Pluto, about 19 minutes after New Horizons' closest approach. The image has a resolution of 430 meters per pixel. Pluto's diameter is 2,374 kilometers.

Finally, the Voyagers are still going, going, going. Voyager 1 is at 135.4 AU from the Sun, and Voyager 2 is at 111.6 AU.



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