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Deep Space Digest – May 9
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Opportunity drives backwards, Curiosity drills into Mars, Rosetta finishes waking up, and Cassini studies Saturn’s auroras.

In the News:

 

Opportunity

Opportunity has continued driving along Solander Point on the rim of Endeavor Crater. The rover is traveling towards an outcrop of clay minerals about 3km away that was spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These clay minerals may have been deposited by freshwater during an earlier period of Martian history. In the meantime, it has been exploring impact breccias (or pulverized rock) created by the formation of Endeavor Crater. Opportunity has been in good health recently, aside from a couple of problems. The right front wheel, which has a broken actuator, began showing increased current levels in early April. To fix the problem, operators began heating the actuator during rest days, as well as driving the rover in reverse to eliminate turns that may put stress on the actuator. These efforts seem to have helped, as wheel currents had subsided to normal levels by April 30. On April 29, a slightly more serious problem occurred with the rover’s flash memory system. Write errors shut down planned activities for the day, although Opportunity’s operators were able to get the rover running again in short order. The MER team says that engineers are still looking for a cause of the problem. Time since launch: 3960 days Total elapsed time on Mars: 3657 sols (3757 Earth days) Total roving distance: 39.22km (24.4 miles) Light travel time to Earth: 5 minutes, 35 seconds

Curiosity

After spending a week exploring ‘The Kimberley’, a geological study waypoint on its way to Mt. Sharp, Curiosity’s operators selected a drill site located at the base of a small (~5m tall) butte named Mt. Remarkable. This drill site, dubbed “Windjana” by Curiosity’s operators, samples sandstone that outcrops at the foot of the butte. Scientists hope that the drill site will provide information on the fluids that flowed through the sediments after they were deposited. Beginning on April 27, Curiosity began a close-up study of Windjana using its full battery of external instruments, including the APXS spectrometer, ChemCam, and its imaging systems. As May opened, Curiosity drilled two small test holes in Windjana, before drilling a full hole on May 6. The new hole exposed darker, redder sediments than were exposed in Curiosity’s last two holes, which were drilled a four kilometers away at the site known as Yellowknife Bay. This raises the prospect that Curiosity will find new minerals not yet observed on Mars. Time since launch: 896 days Total elapsed time on Mars: 623 sols (639 Earth days) Light travel time to Earth: 5 minutes, 35 seconds

Rosetta

This week, engineers with the Rosetta spacecraft competed the commissioning phase of the spacecraft and its Philae lander following their wakeup from hibernation in January and March, respectively. This means that engineers have received word from the spacecraft that all of its instruments have successfully switched on, although the engineers are still pouring over the data to make sure that these instruments are ready for the active phase of the mission. This process is expected to be complete sometime around May 13. On May 7, Rosetta performed the first of ten burns that will line its orbit up with that of 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko. Although it is still nearly 2 million km from the comet, Rosetta has already begun some limited science operations. The ESA has been using Rosetta’s OSIRIS imager to monitor changes in the comet’s brightness to determine its rotation period. Time since launch: 3721 days Current distance from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: 1.7 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 535 million km (332 million miles); light travel time: 29 minutes 44 seconds

Cassini

Cassini has spent much of the last two weeks studying auroras over Saturn’s north pole using its Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument, taking advantage of its highly inclined (40.7 degree) orbit around Saturn. MIMI observed auroras on April 23, 25 and 29th. On April 24 featured a course-correction burn of 32 seconds to set the spacecraft up for its next encounter of Titan, which will be on May 17 at a distance of ~3000km. On April 27 and 29, Cassini also performed several observations of Titan from a distance of 4.5 million kilometers (2.8 million miles) to map its surface and study its atmosphere. Time since launch: 6051 days Total time at Saturn: 3600 days Light travel time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Other missions:

 

MESSENGER

Currently orbiting Mercury. MESSENGER is in its last year of operation at the innermost planet from the Sun, with End of Mission slated for sometime mid-2015. Time since launch: 3566 days Total elapsed time in Mercury orbit: 1149 days Light travel time to Earth: 9 minutes, 47 seconds

Chang’e 3/Yutu

Chang’e 3 and the Yutu lander have spent the last two weeks in hibernation, awaiting lunar sunrise at its landing site in Mare Imbrium today. Time since launch: 160 days Time since landing: 147 days

MAVEN

Currently en route to Mars, which it is expected to reach September 22, 2014. Time since launch: 172 days Current distance from Mars: 40.9 million kilometers (25.4 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 64.1 million kilometers (39.8 million miles); light travel time: 3 minutes, 34 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. Time since launch: 185 days Current distance from Mars: 42.6 million kilometers (26.5 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 64.5 million kilometers (40.1 million miles); light travel time: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Dawn

Currently en route to the asteroid Ceres, which it is expected to reach in February 2015. Time since launch: 2417 days Time since Vesta departure: 612 days Current distance from Ceres: 14.7 million kilometers (9.2 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 246 million kilometers (153 million miles); light travel time: 13 minutes 41 seconds

Juno

Currently en route to Jupiter, which it is expected to reach in August 2016. Time since launch: 1003 days Current distance from Jupiter: 388 million kilometers (241 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 466 million kilometers (290 million miles); light travel time: 25 minutes, 56 seconds

New Horizons

Currently en route to Pluto, which it is expected to reach in July 2015. Time since launch: 3033 days Current distance from Pluto: 515 million kilometers (320 million miles) Current distance from Earth: 4.29 billion kilometers (2.67 billion miles); light travel time: 3 hours, 59 minutes

Voyager 1

Time since launch: 13,396 days Current distance from Earth: 19.00 billion kilometers (11.80 billion miles); light travel time: 17 hours, 37 minutes

Voyager 2

Time since launch: 13,412 days Current distance from Earth: 15.61 billion kilometers (9.70 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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