Emily LakdawallaOct 12, 2007

Milestones this week for Cassini and Spirit

Press releases have been going out from NASA and ESA today, marking the 10th anniversary of the launch of Cassini-Huygens, October 15, 1997. From launch it took the spacecraft nearly seven years to get to Saturn, arriving on July 1, 2004. For those of us who didn't actually work on getting the project off the ground, it's not a particularly meaningful anniversary. However, I'll bet the decade mark is causing a lot of reflection among Cassini-Huygens project team members. To me, it's more significant that in the decade since Cassini-Huygens was launched, we have failed to initiate the development of the next outer planets flagship mission. (Or, at least, we've failed to initiate one that has not also been terminated.) Hopefully that situation will be rectified in the coming year or two. No matter what happens in the next couple of years, there's going to be a big time gap before the next flagship mission arrives at the next outer planet destination. My toddler daughter may be in high school before it happens.

The 10-years-since-launch press release was sobering to me for another reason; a very similar release immediately preceded the loss of Mars Global Surveyor. Cassini is a totally different spacecraft that hasn't even finished its prime mission yet, but still, the announcement gave me a weird superstitious worry for Cassini.

For a happier milestone, let's turn to Mars, where, earlier this week, Spirit celebrated two years since landing -- two Mars years, I mean. The seasons have turned twice since Spirit landed; Opportunity will reach the same milestone in a couple of weeks. It's an astonishing run, and both rovers are still hard at work. I did go to Steve Squyres' talk on the rovers on Tuesday morning at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting, but it contained nothing surprising except for the acknowledgement that Spirit is now entering its third Mars year. Spirit's still "noodling around in Silica Valley" (Squyres' words), and Opportunity is currently "traipsing along the rim of Victoria crater," studying the cross-beds in rocks that were apparently formed from windblown sand, and trying to figure out why the bright band forming the cap of Victoria's rocks is bright.

Here's a relatively recent Navcam panorama from Opportunity, quite a pretty view:

Opportunity panorama, sol 1,314

NASA / JPL / J. van Driel

Opportunity panorama, sol 1,314
Opportunity took the images for this panorama on sols 1,313 and 1,314 (October 3 and 4, 3007), as it perched on the interior slope of Duck Bay within Victoria crater.
Dust storm dims Spirit's sun (sols 1,220-1,339)

Dust storm dims Spirit's sun (sols 1,220-1,339)
Dust storm dims Spirit's sun (sols 1,220-1,339)

NASA / JPL / Cornell / Emily Lakdawalla

Dust storm dims Spirit's sun (sols 1,220-1,339)

By the way, speaking of Mars, don't forget to enter this week's Mars trivia contest.

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