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The Planetary SocietyFebruary 28, 2020

The Downlink: Kuiper Belt World Named Gonggong, New InSight Results


Alex H. Parker

This artist's concept shows Gonggong, a Kuiper Belt object slightly bigger than Pluto's moon Charon. Gonggong was formerly named 2007 OR10. The Planetary Society helped Gonggong’s discoverers ask the public to vote on a name to be submitted to the International Astronomical Union in 2019.

Welcome to The Downlink, a planetary exploration news roundup from The Planetary Society!  Here's everything that crossed our radar this week.

Gonggong The largest unnamed world in the solar system now has a name: Gonggong. The Planetary Society helped Gonggong’s discoverers ask the public to vote on a name to be submitted to the International Astronomical Union in 2019. Gonggong won by a two-to-one margin, and the IAU approved the recommendation. Gonggong is a Kuiper Belt object slightly bigger than Pluto’s moon Charon that orbits between 33 and 101 astronomical units from the Sun (1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and Sun).

Mars NASA is resorting to riskier measures to save the heat-flow probe known as the mole aboard the Mars InSight lander. The self-hammering instrument has unsuccessfully been trying to bury itself since March 2019. Engineers will now use InSight’s robotic scoop to press down on the top of the mole while it hammers. The scoop must be carefully positioned to avoid damaging the fragile ribbon cable that extends from the back of the mole. Learn more about InSight here.

Mars Scientists published 5 new peer-reviewed articles describing the first 10 months of data from the InSight mission. One paper concluded that 3.9 billion years ago, Mars’ magnetic field was just as strong as Earth’s is today. Another paper said 174 marsquakes have been detected, including more than 20 of magnitudes higher than 3. InSight’s science is expected to get better as it acquires more data.

Moon NASA quietly acknowledged that the inaugural flight of the Space Launch System will not occur until 2021. The flight, which will send an Orion crew capsule to lunar orbit and back, was previously scheduled for this year but widely assumed to be delayed. NASA still says it will be able to land humans on the Moon by the end of 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

Mars The European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover, which is scheduled to launch to Mars in July or August, will make an unscheduled repair stop on the way to the launch pad. Glue holding brackets on the rover’s solar panels came unstuck during thermal vacuum testing, which simulated the conditions the rover will face during transit to Mars. The fix is simple—engineers will simply add bolts to the panels—but it's an extra headache for a mission already running short on time as it hurries to complete critical parachute tests. Learn more about the 4 missions launching to Mars this year.

Moon China’s Yutu-2 Moon rover has successfully used its ground-penetrating radar to map different layers beneath the lunar surface, as deep as 40 meters under the rover. The results were summarized in a recent article in Science Advances. The rover radar revealed finer-grained regolith near the surface, with increasingly large boulders further underground. A similar instrument on the first Yutu rover, which landed on the nearside, could only penetrate to about 10 meters depth. Learn more about the Chang’e-4 mission here. China plans to fly another incarnation of the instrument on its Mars mission, planned for launch this summer.

Jupiter NASA’s Juno mission has achieved one of its major goals: to estimate the amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Scientists said water makes up 0.25% of Jupiter’s atmosphere, about 3 times more than what the Galileo probe detected as it plunged into the planet in 1995. It was long suspected that the probe entered an unusually dry spot in Jupiter's atmosphere. The water abundance will help scientists pin down how close to the Sun Jupiter was when it formed. This will, in turn, feed into formation models of other planetary systems, and help scientists determine how common it may be for other star systems to have water-rich, rocky planets like Earth. 

Jupiter The first science instrument has been delivered for installation aboard JUICE, the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer. JUICE is scheduled to launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2029 to perform detailed observations of Jupiter and 3 of its moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The instrument is an ultraviolet spectrograph that will learn about the moons’ compositions. It may also be able to image aurorae on Jupiter and Ganymede. 

A brand-new Downlink is coming. In addition to our weekly news roundup, each Downlink will soon contain bonus space images and factoids, announcements from The Planetary Society, and actions you can take to support space science and exploration. You will also be able to receive The Downlink in your inbox—subscribe to our email list today!

Read more: InSight, Space Launch System, Orion, ExoMars 2020, 225088 (2007 OR10), the Moon, Mars, The Downlink, Juno, Jupiter, JUICE

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