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Deep Space Digest – April 23
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Deep Space Digest is a new biweekly feature that we will be developing over the next couple of months. We will try to provide our readers with a short summary of major mission news for selected missions. Feedback on the feature would be much appreciated!

In the News:

 

MESSENGER

MESSENGER completed its 3000th orbit around Mercury on April 21. Since March 2013, the spacecraft’s lowest altitude has been decreasing as the result of precessional effects. The lowest altitude is now under 100km, and is on track for a June 2014 correction manuever to prevent it from crashing into Mercury. MESSENGER scientists are using this decreasing altitude to refine their laser altimetry measurements, take a closer look at the surface geology, and study the interaction of the solar wind with Mercury’s magnetic field closer to the surface.

Time since launch: 3550 days
Total elapsed time in Mercury orbit: 1133 days
Light travel time to Earth: 11 minutes, 4 seconds

 

Chang’e 3/Yutu

Chang’e 3 is China’s first moon lander and has been operating on the Moon’s surface since December 14th of last year. In January the Yutu rover suffered a mechanical failure that prevented it from stowing its solar panel or moving its scientific instrument arm. Very little about mission operations has been released by the Chinese government since mid-March, so the current state of both the lander and rover’s scientific instrumentation is not well known. However, scientists remain in contact with both pieces of equipment. Both lander and rover were briefly put into sleep mode for the total lunar eclipse on April 15 to conserve power.

On March 14, Yutu exceeded its operational lifespan of 3 months. Chang’e 3 has an operational lifespan of 1 year.

Time since launch: 144 days
Time since landing: 131 days

 

Opportunity

Opportunity continues to explore Murray Ridge, one of a number of hills that marks the edge of Endeavor Crater. Opportunity collected a panoramic image on April 10th, before continuing on towards clay deposits that the mission team wants to study. In the last few weeks, Opportunity’s power situation has improved thanks to favorable winds that have been removing dust from its solar panels. Since the winds began about 4 weeks ago, the rover is producing 20% more power.

Time since launch: 3948 days
Total elapsed time on Mars: 3645 sols (3740 Earth days)
Total roving distance: 38.94km (24.2 miles)
Light travel time to Earth: 5 minutes, 12 seconds

 

Curiosity

At the start of April, Curiosity arrived at a geological waypoint on its journey to Mt. Sharp. Dubbed ‘the Kimberley’, the waypoint has four distinctly different types of rock outcrop in the area, which will allow the rover’s scientists to unravel how geological conditions changed in the area. Since arriving the Kimberley, Curiosity has been scouting out potential drilling sites. A leading contender for a drilling site is a small butte mission scientists have named “Mount Remarkable”.

Time since launch: 880 days
Total elapsed time on Mars: 607 sols (623 Earth days)
Light travel time to Earth: 5 minutes, 12 seconds

 

Rosetta

Rosetta and its Philae lander continue instrument commissioning following their wake-up from hibernation in January and March, respectively. During the commissioning phase, Philae snapped this picture of Rosetta’s solar panels. This week is the last week of the instrument commissioning phase, and next week Rosetta will begin performing maneuvers to line its orbit up with that of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for orbital insertion next month.

Time since launch: 3705 days
Current distance from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: 3.5 million kilometers (2.2 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 577 million km (358 million miles); light travel time: 32 minutes 1 second

 

Cassini

On April 7, Cassini made a flyby of Titan (its 101st) at a distance of 963km (593 miles). Although not the last of Cassini’s Titan flybys, it was the closest remaining flyby of the mission. During the encounter, Cassini directly sampled Titan’s atmosphere, as well as obtained an atmospheric density profile by studying the star Antares as it was occulted by the moon. Cassini also continued mapping the surface of Titan, imaging a large swath of Titan’s southern hemisphere at 20m/pixel resolution.

After the flyby,Cassini turned its attention to Saturn’s rings to study “propeller features”, or small fans of ring material formed by the gravity of small moonlets within the rings. One of these features, a disturbance on the rim of Saturn’s A-ring, may be a new moon that has formed from ring material.

Time since launch: 6035 days
Total time at Saturn: 3584 days
Light travel time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

 

Other missions:

 

MAVEN

Currently en route to Mars, which it is expected to reach September 22, 2014. It passed the halfway point to Mars on April 9.

Time since launch: 156 days
Current distance from Mars: 49.7 million kilometers (30.8 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 50.1 million kilometers (31.1 million miles); light travel time: 2 minutes, 47 seconds

 

Mangalyaan-1

India’s first Mars mission is currently en route to the Red Planet, which it is expected to reach September 24, 2014. It passed the halfway point to Mars on April 11.

Time since launch: 169 days
Current distance from Mars: 52.1 million kilometers (32.3 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 50.6 million kilometers (31.4 million miles); light travel time 2 minutes 48 seconds

 

Dawn

Currently en route to the asteroid Ceres, which it is expected to reach in February 2015.

Time since launch: 2401 days
Time since Vesta departure: 596 days
Current distance from Ceres: 16.2 million kilometers (10.1 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 235 million kilometers (146 million miles); light travel time: 13 minutes

 

Juno

Currently en route to Jupiter, which it is expected to reach in August 2016.

Time since launch: 987 days
Current distance from Jupiter: 402 million kilometers (249 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 424 million kilometers (263 million miles); light travel time: 23 minutes, 31 seconds

 

New Horizons

Currently en route to Pluto, which it is expected to reach in July 2015.

Time since launch: 3017 days
Current distance from Pluto: 532 million kilometers (330 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 4.32 billion kilometers (2.68 billion miles); light travel time: 3 hours, 59 minutes

 

Voyager 1

Time since launch: 13,380 days
Current distance from Earth: 18.99 billion kilometers (11.80 billion miles); light travel time: 17 hours, 36 minutes

 

Voyager 2

Time since launch: 13,396 days
Current distance from Earth: 15.66 billion kilometers (9.71 billion miles); light travel time: 14 hours, 28 minutes

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About The Author
Justin Cowart
Justin Cowart is a geologist interested in Earth and Solar System history. As a geologist, he spends hist time looking at the ground, but in his free time he looks to the skies as an amateur astronomer.

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