Hello, 2013! I'm looking forward to a fun year in planetary exploration -- but then every year is a fun year. What's ahead?
First of all, there are four solar system launches planned.
The biggest solar system launch of this year was one that I must admit I knew nothing whatever about until this week. I vaguely knew that there was a Chang'E 3 in the Chinese lunar mission pipeline, but I hadn't clued in that it was a soft lander. And it's a big one, tipping the scales at 1200 kilograms. That's heavier than Curiosity. Like Curiosity, it'll have an RTG to provide power and heat -- the heat part being particularly important for surviving long lunar nights. And while the lander itself is immobile, it will deploy a 100-kilogram rover. According to this post on nasaspaceflight.com, the lander will be equipped with a near-UV optical telescope for astronomical observation; a far-UV camera for studying Earth's ionosphere; a sounding radar; several optical cameras; and a soil probe. The rover will carry optical cameras and an APXS. I'm working on a longer post about this mission, because it's an exciting one. I don't actually know what the launch date is, only that it's supposed to be later this year. Assembly began last March.
Also headed to the Moon this year is LADEE (short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer). LADEE is a lunar orbiter that will be studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere and the dust that levitates above its surface. It'll also be validating some new technologies, like optical communications. Its ride to space will be the first flight of Orbital Science Corporation's Minotaur V rocket. LADEE will have a short operational lifetime of about five months, including 100 days of science operations, in an orbit at 50 kilometers altitude. Here's an LPSC abstract (Delory et al. 2010) with more information about the mission's science goals. LADEE is currently expected to launch in September 2013. It's proceeding well toward that launch date; an update posted on their website yesterday described the attachment of its solar panels and preparation for "shake-and-bake" testing.
Two missions are preparing to take advantage of the 2013 Mars launch window, which opens in November. NASA's MAVEN mission will be studying Mars' upper atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind as a means to understand Mars' climate history. Its elliptical orbit will actually take it into Mars' upper atmosphere at each periapsis. MAVEN will be equipped with an Electra transceiver so that it can relay data to and from rovers and landers on Mars' surface, but its elliptical orbit will make it more difficult to use for relay than Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Like LADEE, MAVEN is well on its way toward launch. Most NASA missions use Twitter now, but MAVEN's use is better than most, with frequent updates on assembly progress accompanied by photos, like this one.
Finally, India's Mars Orbiter Mission will launch into Earth orbit in October and then perform several orbital boosts before it departs on a Mars-bound trajectory in November. I just posted an update with what information I have been able to glean about the spacecraft and payload from recent articles in Indian media. Mission objectives are mostly engineering ones related to the challenges of operating India's first deep-space mission.
Those four will join a flotilla of spacecraft in ongoing missions. I haven't done one of my "what's up" updates for a while, because I wasn't satisfied with the format I was using -- I was repeating too much text from month to month. So many missions are in routine operations! It's not as if exploring the solar system could ever be "routine," but my updates had become kind of dull to write, and when writing about space gets boring, I'm doing it wrong. Thus the hiatus.
So what major mission events can we expect in 2013? To begin, here's Olaf Frohn's diagram of where our intrepid explorers are across the solar system:
At Mercury, MESSENGER's extended mission runs out in March, and rumor has it that NASA may choose to shut down an active spacecraft rather than spend the money to support another mission extension, despite the fact that MESSENGER has fuel enough for two more years of operations. You will likely be hearing about this from me again!
Nearer home, Juno will be flying by Earth on October 13, and you can hope to see some spectacular photos of Earth shot with JunoCam during the encounter. After that it'll take more than two more years to get to Jupiter.
On Mars, it is now Ls 239 of Mars Year 31, meaning that we're a bit more than midway between the southern vernal equinox and summer solstice. Curiosity (whose 2013 will comprise sols 144 to 499) is expected to spend January and February using the drill for the first time, then, finally, embark on the road trip to the base of the mountain. The trip will likely take the rest of the year. Opportunity (whose 2013 will comprise sols 3177 to 3533) will no doubt be noodling around on the rim of Endeavour crater all year. Jim Bell said in this week's hangout that the current thinking is that they'll wrap up at Cape York and drive south within a few months. Mars solar conjunction is in April; Jim said that'd make for a natural break between phases of Opportunity's mission. Of course, decisions are made tactically, and anything could happen!
At Saturn, Cassini will spend all of 2013 in a highly inclined orbit. That orbit has it spending most of its time on the sunward side of Saturn, until July, when back-to-back Titan flybys swing the apoapsis of Cassini's orbit to the opposite side of the planet.Throughout the year there will be eight targeted Titan flybys (used both for science and for tweaking the orbit), as well as one 1000-kilometer-altitude Rhea flyby in March.
As for everyone else: Venus Express, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, ARTEMIS, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Voyagers are in multiply-extended missions; there's no reason to doubt that they'll spend 2013 in normal mission operations. Akatsuki, Dawn, New Horizons, and Rosetta will spend all of 2013 cruising, cruising, cruising toward Venus, Ceres, Pluto, and comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, respectively. In fact, Rosetta will be totally silent all year, waking up from hibernation in January 2014. Finally, Deep Impact and ICE are still alive out there, awaiting further orders.
Following is a listing of all active missions, with links to places I use to check up on their status. It's a long list! It currently includes 13 spacecraft (11 missions) actively returning science data, plus 9 others in cruise or post-mission phases. Since this is the first time I've posted this list, there are likely some bad links; please do let me know about them and I'll fix them. Also let me know if there are good resources that I've missed!
Eight spacecraft actively returning science data and regularly posting images to the Internet:
Rosetta ESA comet orbiter/lander (launched 2 Mar 2004, entered hibernation Jun 2011, expected out of hibernation Jan 2014, to arrive at Churyumov-Gerasimenko Aug 2014, Philae landing Nov 2014) Also: Earth flyby 4 Mar 2005, Mars flyby 25 Feb 2007, Earth flyby 13 Nov 2007, 2867 Steins flyby 5 Sep 2008, 21 Lutetia flyby 10 Jul 2010) science website - UMSF forum - Rosetta blogs - Rosetta images
Four spacecraft in flight but without current assignments: