Alan SternMay 18, 2009

Exciting Times Ahead: 2010 Will Sizzle, and 2011 Will Really Cook!

It's great to help Emily out with guest blogging this week. I'm planning to write almost every day. Today, I'm kicking the week off with a look at the unusually intense confluence of far flung planetary exploration that's just around the corner, starting the middle of next year. As you probably realized long ago, which space launches, flybys, and landings occur in the exploration of the planets each year is a function of both program programmatics and orbital mechanics. These factors conspire to make some years lean, and others fat. For example, this year's major planetary exploration events list is relatively lean, with just the LRO/LCROSS launch next month and MESSENGER's now third and final flyby to explore Mercury coming on September 29th. By comparison, next year will have a good deal more sizzle, including: - May: JAXA launches its Planet-C Venus Climate Orbiter atmospheric mission. - June: ESA's Rosetta mission flies by the large (115 km diameter) asteroid 21 Lutetia. - November: JAXA's daring Hayabusa asteroid sample mission returns to Earth. - November: NASA's EPOXI mission extension of Deep Impact flies by Hartley 2, adding another comet to the reconnaissance inventory. - December: JAXA's first arrival at Venus with Planet-C.

Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki (PLANET-C)
Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki (PLANET-C) Image: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

And if you think that's exciting -- as I do -- well, it's just the warm up -- because 2011 is going to be one of the most action packed planetary exploration years in memory. Here's the rapid fire, and highly international pace of events on the books for the year after next: - February: NASA's Stardust-NEXT makes the first revisit to a comet, looking for both surface changes and Deep Impact's elusive crater on Tempel 1. - March: NASA's MESSENGER becomes the first orbiter of Mercury. - August: NASA's Dawn arrives in orbit around one of the very largest asteroids -- Vesta -- a world 500 kilometers across -- twice as wide as Enceladus and just as mysterious. - August: NASA's Juno launches to explore the interior and magnetosphere of Jupiter. - August: Russia launches Phobos-Grunt to explore and attempt sample return from a Martian moon. - September: NASA launches its GRAIL Discovery mission to study the interior of the Moon in exquisite detail. - October: NASA launches MSL to rove Mars.

Dawn in Orbit
Dawn in Orbit Image: NASA

There's no doubt after that list: 2011 is going to be a really rocking year. With Cassini, MRO, and LRO also continuing their orbital tours at Saturn, Mars, and Luna, respectively, 2011 promises something for practically everyone. So while 2009 isn't much of a year to write home about, hold on to your hats, because 2010 will sizzle, and then 2011 will really cook! All that 2010-2011 fun begins just a year from now, next May. So stay tuned to this channel for updates from Emily and friends on these events as we get closer and closer to them.

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