Emily Lakdawalla is The Planetary Society’s senior editor and planetary evangelist.
When I first came to The Planetary Society in 2001, there were few solar system spacecraft actively operating their science missions. That year, it was just Mars Global Surveyor, Deep Space 1, Stardust, and the tail end of the Galileo mission. The current decade has been a different story. It’s gotten so busy that I had to write down a list and make a point of checking each active mission every month or two, just to be sure I hadn’t missed any momentous events. I used to do this only at planetary.org/blog, but now I’m initiating a regular column in The Planetary Report called Where We Are, your guide to humanity’s active robotic emissaries across the solar system and beyond.
On the facing page, you’ll see two wide solar system views: one focused on the inner solar system through the main asteroid belt, and one zoomed out to encompass the outer planets and the Kuiper belt. The layout is based on diagrams produced by space fan Olaf Frohn for planetary.org since 2009. Insets show you the exploration action at Mars, at our Moon, and at L1, a gravitationally stable point between Earth and the Sun. I don’t show spacecraft in Earth orbit. You’ll see all the deep-space robots that are currently in routine communication with Earth—plus one, Opportunity, that is not actively communicating with us as we go to press. Let’s hope that the silent Mars rover wakes up before you receive the next issue of The Planetary Report.
What else will change before January? As you’ve read in this magazine, BepiColombo should set off for Mercury via Earth and Venus in November, and Chang’e-4 will launch toward a landing on the lunar farside in December. OSIRIS-REx is slowly approaching its target asteroid Bennu, which will transform from a point of light into a unique-looking world by December. Hayabusa2 is expected to deploy its landers, touch down, and grab a sample from Ryugu. Kepler, running on fumes, may not last out the year.
Out at Mars, InSight will land on November 26 and begin to set up its geophysical experiments, bringing the total number of Mars spacecraft to 9 (assuming Opportunity is still with us).
Beyond Mars, our fleet has suffered expected losses in the last couple of years. We’re down to Juno, patiently orbiting Jupiter; Dawn, nearly out of fuel at Ceres; and New Horizons, fast approaching an exciting New Year’s Day flyby of classical Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69. Far beyond everything else, Voyager 1 and 2 continue to send us messages from interstellar space.