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Jason DavisDecember 20, 2019

The Downlink: CHEOPS Exoplanet Mission Launches, ISS Test Flight Goes Awry

CHEOPS liftoff

ESA / CNES / Arianespace Optique Video du CSG

CHEOPS liftoff
A Soyuz rocket blasts off from French Guiana on 18 December carrying CHEOPS, the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite. CHEOPS is a European Space Agency mission that will spend at least three-and-a-half years precisely measuring the diameters of known exoplanets.

Welcome to issue 12 of The Downlink, a planetary exploration news roundup from The Planetary Society! Most of our staff will be on vacation next week, so this will be our last Downlink of the year. See you in 2020!

Here's everything that crossed our radar this week. 

Exoplanet The European Space Agency successfully launched a new mission to study exoplanets. CHEOPS, the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, will spend at least three-and-a-half years in Earth orbit precisely measuring the diameters of known exoplanets. Learn more about CHEOPS here.

Exoplanet The International Astronomical Union (IAU) released the results from an international campaign to name more than 100 stars and exoplanets. You’ll find new names in the catalog like Krotoa (a gas giant named after a 17th century South African) and Xólotl (a gas giant named after an Aztec deity associated with Venus).

Earth Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft blasted off on its first test flight to the International Space Station, but did not complete its first orbit raising burn and will have to return to Earth without docking. This test is uncrewed and similar to a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight that occurred earlier this year. Both Starliner and Crew Dragon may launch astronauts to the station next year, marking the first human spaceflight missions from Florida since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. Learn more about the International Space Station here.

Jupiter Scientists on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter detected a new cyclone at Jupiter’s south pole. When Juno first arrived in 2016, it saw 5 cyclones churning in a hexagonal pattern around a central cyclone. But during Juno’s 22nd flyby on 3 November 2019, a sixth had formed. Scientists are eager to see what happens by the next Juno flyby on 26 December. Unlike Jupiter’s equatorial storms, the polar cyclones can’t be imaged from Earth; Juno’s flybys provide our only opportunity to see them.

Mars The heat probe instrument aboard NASA’s InSight spacecraft is once again hammering itself into the Martian soil. Scientists almost managed to bury the probe with help from InSight’s robotic arm after the probe got stuck earlier this year, until it inexplicably popped back out of its hole in October

Mars NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to launch in July 2020, went on its inaugural test drive inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory clean room where it is being built. Learn more about the mission here.

Mars The European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2020 mission completed a successful parachute extraction test, marking an important step towards next year’s launch. The mission has been plagued by parachute problems and faces a series of do-or-die tests next year before mission officials commit to launch.

Eros NASA celebrated the 10-year launch anniversary of WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The spacecraft’s original purpose was to study asteroids, stars, and galaxies, until it was repurposed as the NEOWISE asteroid-hunting mission in 2013. As of mid-December, NEOWISE has completed 12 sky surveys, observing more than 1,000 near-Earth objects and almost 200 comets. The spacecraft’s orbit around Earth is deteriorating to the point where it will eventually no longer be able to observe. NASA has a replacement mission in the works that could launch by 2024. Learn more about NEOWISE here.

Mars Scientists have released an upper-atmosphere wind circulation map for Mars, the first such map for any planet besides Earth. Data for the map were collected by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The model may help scientists better understand how Mars lost its atmosphere and transitioned to its current cold, dry state.

Solar System The Planetary Society is turning 40! For the past 4 decades we’ve been connecting people around the world with the passion, beauty, and joy of space exploration. A generous, anonymous donor has pledged to match all gifts to the Planetary Fund dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum of $100,000. Click here to launch our work into the next 40 years!

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Read more: Mars 2020, InSight, ExoMars 2020, WISE and NEOWISE, MAVEN, extrasolar planets, International Space Station, Mars, Juno, Jupiter, CHEOPS

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Jason Davis

Editorial Director for The Planetary Society
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