Emily LakdawallaSep 28, 2012

What's Up in the Solar System in October 2012

Welcome to my monthly survey of the activities of robots across the solar system! Tomorrow is the equinox at Mars so days are lengthening and warming for both Curiosity and Opportunity, both of which will be spending the month actively analyzing Martian rocks. It'll be a less active month for Cassini, as Saturn passes through solar conjunction late next month, making communication difficult.

Look for a boatload of planetary science news in the middle of the month, when the 44th annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society will be taking place in Reno. I'll be attending all five days of the conference, from October 15 to 19, tweeting as much as possible (#DPS12) and posting blog entries when I can. Outside of planetary science, look for the next SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on October 7.

Now let's see what everyone's up to!

At the inner planets:

Last month NASA's MESSENGER mission more than halfway through its first extended mission, and plans are afoot to extend the mission to a third year of operations. Last month they dumped another pile of data into the Planetary Data System. I've not yet seen any amateurs do much of anything with MESSENGER data from the orbital phase of the mission -- there's opportunities to find neat stuff in that data set! As always, check the daily image gallery for cool pictures; here's a good recent one of "hollows" in Eminescu crater.

ESA's Venus Express orbiter continues to circle Venus, Earth's cloudy neighbor. The most recent mission status update covers the mission through August and discusses the eighth atmospheric drag campaign.

Ebb and Flow, the twin spacecraft of NASA's GRAIL mission, continue their extended mission. They are zooming over the lunar surface at an average altitude of only 23 kilometers; their orbit will occasionally take them within only eight kilometers of some of the Moon's highest peaks. Yikes! The extended mission will last until December 3.

NASA's ARTEMIS spacecraft are presumably still orbiting the Moon. They were sent into lunar orbit in 2011 to study the Moon's magnetic field, and should last for at least seven years.

China's Chang'E 2 spacecraft left the Sun-Earth L2 point sometime in April for asteroid 4179 Toutatis, and amateur astronomers have recently confirmed that it appears to be on track for a mid-December flyby. China also recently announced that Chang'E 3 will launch in 2013, and include a rover.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to collect high-resolution imagery of the lunar surface. Like MESSENGER, they performed their quarterly dump of data into the Planetary Data System last month. One recent cool image from their captioned gallery is this one of dark-haloed craters. Read to the end, and it challenges you to investigate the images further to confirm or deny the formation hypothesis that they suggest!

Out at Mars:

Tomorrow is the Martian southern vernal equinox; today it's currently Ls 179.6 of Mars Year 31, and the end of Curiosity sol 52. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Curiosity has driven right up to the edge of Glenelg, its first science destination. The most recent drive used visual odometry for the first time, a technique that permits the rover to measure the distance it has traveled, improving the accuracy of long drives. The rover will very likely begin performing its first soil sampling experiment this month, an operation that will take two or three weeks to complete if everything goes as planned. Here's the latest route map for Curiosity.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has spent the last month nosing around the "Kirkwood" outcrop on the inner edge of Cape York, studying enigmatic spherules and plaster-like deposits on rocks. According to a news item posted today, Opportunity will be staying at the site, now named "Matijevic Hill," for "weeks or months." It's currently sol 3086. Here's the current discussion thread on unmannedspaceflight.com, and the latest update to the route map from Eduardo Tesheiner.

After watching Curiosity's landing, ESA's Mars Express has continued to perform occasional communications experiments with the rover. The mission has been extended through at least 2014, and continues to gather camera and spectral data on Mars.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is now providing weather information to two missions, Opportunity and Curiosity, and has resumed posting them to the Web as well. This week's weather report includes lots of dust storm activity near both polar caps.! At the time, there was storm activity within Valles Marieris and along the edge of the south polar cap, where springtime sun is boiling off the seasonally deposited carbon dioxide ice. The HiRISE camera continues to deliver daily jaw-dropping imagery of Mars' surface. This image is cool -- an impact punched through a lobate flow deposit to hit a stronger material, producing a double-ring crater that's very small. To make it cooler, it's one of a stereo pair.

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft performed like a trooper during Curiosity's landing and has resumed normal activities alternating between listening for Opportunity and Curiosity data and continuing to map Mars with THEMIS. Here's a really cool recent photo of a storm flowing south of the northern polar cap.

Ringed Saturn:

The NASA-ESA-ASI Cassini Saturn orbiter has just perfomed its T86 Titan flyby, which included a RADAR swath across Kraken Mare, and is on the outbound leg of Rev 172. Its orbital inclination is now 39 degrees, way above the ring plane. The geometry means that Cassini is performing frequent ring occultation observations, when it watches as a background star passes behind the semitransparent rings. There are no targeted flybys planned for this month, in part because Saturn is passing through solar conjunction and there will be a command moratorium from October 22 through 27. There should be a new data release (the 31st) to the Planetary Data System any day now. As with previous months, the major science focus is on Saturn and Titan's atmospheres and Saturn's rings. To see what Cassini's doing when, check out my long and detailed page on Cassini's tour of the Saturn system, and look to the Looking Ahead page for more detailed information.

Cruising along:

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on the way to Ceres, with 61.5 million kilometers (0.411 AU) left to go. Make yourselves comfortable; it won't arrive until early 2015. I can't do a precise countdown as I do for New Horizons, because the exact arrival date depends upon the performance of the ion propulsion system. While you wait, you can help the science team out by counting craters in the Asteroid Mappers citizen science project.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has 8.14 AU to go to reach Pluto, and 1018 days until closest approach on July 14, 2015. If you'd like to help in the selection of New Horizons' Kuiper belt target, head over to Cosmoquest's Ice Investigators website.

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed its two-part deep space maneuver last month, putting it on course for an August 2013 flyby of Earth. The Earth flyby will give Juno the boost it needs to send it on to its July 2016 Jupiter arrival.

NASA's Deep Impact is in solar orbit, awaiting further instructions for a possible second mission extension. The spacecraft may attempt a flyby of near-Earth object 163249 (2002 GT) in January 2020. But the latest word, from a presentation by Jim Green, suggests it may soon be placed in hibernation to save money.

JAXA's Akatsuki is now in solar orbit, on its long cruise to attempt a second Venusian orbital insertion in November 2015.

JAXA's IKAROS regained communication with Earth last month. According to the IKAROS blog, on September 13 it responded to a command to switch from its low-gain to its medium-gain antenna for the transmission of some telemetry, but was switched back to the low-gain antenna on the 15th. The general health of the spacecraft appears to be good, though there is almost no propellant left.

ESA's Rosetta is now on the final, long leg of its cruise to its target comet. It's been placed into hibernation and will not communicate with Earth again until January 2014. The next object it'll encounter will be its goal, comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko; rendezvous is set for May 2014.

The International Cometary Explorer remains on course for a return visit to Earth in 2014. When it comes home, ICE can be returned to a Sun-Earth L1 halo orbit, or can use multiple Earth swing-bys to encounter Comet Wirtanen during its near-Earth apparition in December 2018.

Finally, NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are still going strong; Voyager 1 is at the very edge of the heliosphere, heading into interstellar space. Follow the current position of both using the NASAVoyager2 twitter feed (this is not an official NASA account, but it's the one with the most information).

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