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Deep Space Digest – August 29
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Curiosity abandons a drilling target, Opportunity gets a memory reformatting, Rosetta scouts a landing site, and Cassini takes a close look Titan.

 

In the News:

 

Curiosity

Although Curiosity’s operators have been preparing the rover to drill into a pale sandstone called “Bonanza King” for the last two weeks, they abandoned their attempts on August 27. Initial attempts to drill into the rock pushed it deeper into the dirt, revealing that it was a broken piece of bedrock, and not firmly held in place by surrounding rock. Unwilling to risk damaging Curiosity’s drill, the science team has left the target. The rover team will save the drilling for the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop, which lies only a few hundred meters away from Curiosity’s current location.

Unfortunately, getting to Pahrump Hills will prove to be a difficult experience for Curiosity. The initial route had the rover route through a sand-filled valley named “Hidden Valley”. While the sand is capable of cushioning wheel wear (which has been a problem for Curiosity since landing), it proved too deep, leaving Curiosity spinning its wheels as it attempted to push forward. The new route to Pahrump Hills takes it over an additional stretch of caprock terrain, which has proven damaging to Curiosity’s wheels in the past. For more coverage of Curiosity’s wheel woes, check out this detailed article by the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla.

Time since launch: 1008 days
Total elapsed time on Mars: 734 sols (754 Earth days)
Light travel time to Earth: 11 minutes, 12 seconds
Total roving distance: 9.23km (5.73 miles)

Opportunity

Opportunity has temporarily suspended operations as the ground team troubleshoots a problem with the rover’s flash memory. Resets on August 15, 18, and 19 partially interrupted science operations. The increasing rate of memory resets in recent weeks have been a minor cause for concern, but the operations team is looking into taking corrective action. This will probably involve a reformatting of the flash memory system, a technique that was successfully deployed on Spirit rover to solve a file system error that occurred shortly after it landed.

Time since launch: 4076 days
Total elapsed time on Mars: 3768 sols (3870 Earth days)
Total roving distance: 40.69km (25.28 miles)
Light travel time to Earth: 11 minutes, 12 seconds

 

Rosetta

Rosetta is slowly pulling closer to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, performing a series of pirouettes around the comet at ever closer range. The first of these was at an altitude of 100km, but that was lowered to 80km on the 17th, and to 60km on the 22nd. During this time, the Rosetta science team has been focusing heavily on finding a landing site for the Philae lander, which in November will become the first manmade object to land on a comet. On the 25th, the Rosetta team announced the shortlist of 5 candidate landing spots on the comet’s nucleus.

Before a final decision can be made, Rosetta must rule out any hazardous areas within the planned landing sites, as well as determine the comet’s gravitational field with more accuracy. The lander lacks a thruster, and with no way to control its descent, the probe will have to be released along a very well-defined ballistic trajectory for a successful landing. The final landing site will be announced in mid-October.

Time since launch: 3871 days
Time since arrival at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: 23 days
Current distance from Earth: 420 million km (261 million miles); light travel time: 23 minutes 21 seconds

 

Cassini

Cassini cruised towards Titan for an August 21 encounter at a distance at 964km (599 miles). This pass was designed to look for changes in the shoreline of Kraken Mare, a methane/ethane lake roughly the size of Lake Superior. Of particular interest was a search for the feature named Magic Island, a feature in the lake that was discovered in June 2013 and has since disappeared.

Much of Cassini’s time was spent looking at Saturn and its ring system, particularly with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) and composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS). Observations of the planet and its rings were the primary goal of science observations every day during the first week of this update period. In between these observations, Cassini snuck in short observations of Titan. On the 13th, Cassini measured the UV spectrum of Mimas’s trailing hemisphere, as well as imaged the distant moon Tarvos, named after a Gaulish god. On the 16th, it imaged the F ring, a tightly braided ring with an ever-changing appearance thanks to the moon Prometheus, which is large enough to steal material from the ring.

Time since launch: 6156 days
Total time at Saturn: 3712 days
Light travel time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

 

Other missions:

MESSENGER

MESSENGER is currently orbiting Mercury. The mission is in its final year of operation, but is using its slowly decaying orbit to obtain spectacular views of the planet’s north polar region.

Time since launch: 3681 days
Total elapsed time in Mercury orbit: 1260 days
Light travel time to Earth: 10 minutes, 40 seconds

 

Venus Express

Venus Express is currently orbiting Venus. After the aerobraking campaign ended last month, the spacecraft was successfully reboosted into a higher orbit. While this orbit will slowly decay over the coming months, Venus Express is expected to continue regular science operations until December.

Time since launch: 3216 days
Time elapsed time in Venus orbit: 2963 days
Light travel time to Earth: 13 minutes, 39 seconds

 

Chang’e 3/Yutu

Time since launch: 271 days
Time since landing: 258 days

 

MAVEN

MAVEN finished its cruise-phase instrument checkouts on July 17. The probe was placed into hibernation in preparation for orbital insertion on September 22, 2014.

Time since launch: 284 days
Current distance from Mars: 6.8 million kilometers (4.2 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 196 million kilometers (122 million miles); light travel time: 10 minutes, 57 seconds

 

Mars Orbiter Mission

India’s first Mars mission is currently en route to the Red Planet, where it will arrive on September 24, 2014.

Time since launch: 278 days
Current distance from Mars: 7.2 million kilometers (4.5 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 196 million kilometers (122 million miles); light travel time: 10 minutes, 55 seconds

 

Dawn

Currently en route to the asteroid Ceres, where it will arrive in February 2015.

Time since launch: 2506 days
Time since Vesta departure: 701 days
Current distance from Ceres: 5.5 million kilometers (3.4 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 454 million kilometers (282 million miles); light travel time: 25 minutes 3 seconds

 

Juno

Currently en route to Jupiter, where it will arrive in August 2016.

Time since launch: 1115 days
Current distance from Jupiter: 313 million kilometers (195 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 666 million kilometers (414 million miles); light travel time: 37 minutes, 5 seconds

 

New Horizons

New Horizons is now less than a year away from its flyby of Pluto, which will occur on July 14, 2015. On August 25, New Horizons crossed the orbit of Neptune, the last major milestone before the encounter.

Time since launch: 3145 days
Current distance from Pluto: 381 million kilometers (237 million miles)
Current distance from Earth: 4.42 billion kilometers (2.75 billion miles); light travel time: 4 hours, 6 minutes

 

Voyager 1

Time since launch: 13,506 days
Current distance from Earth: 19.25 billion kilometers (11.96 billion miles); light travel time: 17 hours, 50 minutes

 

Voyager 2

August 25th marked the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune, its final planetary encounter before leaving the Solar System.

Time since launch: 13,522 days
Current distance from Earth: 15.73 billion kilometers (9.78 billion miles); light travel time: 14 hours, 34 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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