Exploring the Planets

What's New in Planetary Exploration?

 

Juno

Juno

Launched in 2011, the Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. It will spend one year in orbit studying the gas giant’s origins, interior structure, deep atmosphere, and magnetosphere.

The mission’s primary goal is to improve our understanding of Jupiter’s formation and evolution, which may provide some insight into the history of our solar system.

NASA/JPL

 

Kepler - 1,000 New Planets

Kepler - 1,000 New Planets

Kepler is an orbiting space telescope launched in 2009. It searches distant stars for Earth-like planets within a solar system's "habitable zone," an area around a star that maintains a temperature range moderate enough to allow liquid water to exist on a planet's surface.

In 2013 two of Kepler’s four reaction wheels, which pointed the spacecraft, failed. Efforts to fix them were unsuccessful, and data collection ceased. In 2014 Kepler began a new mission named K2. Using pressure from sunlight, mission scientists can control the spacecraft's position again, and its hunt for planets has resumed.

On May 10, 2016, NASA announced that the Kepler mission has confirmed the existence of 1,284 new planets. This is the single largest discovery of planets to date. Mission scientists examined Kepler’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which contained 4,302 potential planets. They determined that 1,284 of the candidates had a greater than 99 percent probability of being a planet.

NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

 

Haze Above Pluto

Haze Above Pluto

New Horizons captured this image of haze over Pluto’s limb. Extending over hundreds of kilometers, the haze has about 20 layers, and is cooler and more compact than expected.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 

Mars Gravity Map

Mars Gravity Map

On March 21, 2016, NASA revealed a new Mars Gravity Map. It was created using data from NASA's Deep Space Network and the following spacecraft: Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

On this color-coded map, white indicates higher-gravity areas and blue indicates lower-gravity areas. The data has enabled researchers to look inside the planet and has confirmed that Mars has a liquid outer core of molten rock.

MIT/UMBC-CRESST/GSFC

 

Planet X

Planet X

Researchers at Caltech discovered evidence suggesting there may be a "Planet X" residing deep in the solar system. Nicknamed "Planet Nine," this hypothetical planet would be about the size of Neptune and have a mass about 10 times that of Earth. They also believe it would have a highly elongated orbit and would take from 10,000 to 20,000 Earth years to make one full orbit around the Sun.

This is an artist concept showing what Planet X may look like.

Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

 

ExoMars

ExoMars

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars program will investigate the Martian environment and test new technologies. The program involves two missions.  

The first mission, which launched on March 14, consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter and an entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module named Schiaparelli. The orbiter will detect and study atmospheric trace gases. Schiaparelli has sensors that will evaluate its performance as it descends, and others that will study the environment at its landing site. The spacecraft will reach Mars in October and begin five years of scientific studies in December 2017.  

The second mission features a rover and is planned for launch in 2018. 

The artist concept shows all three elements of the ExoMars program. 

ESA

 

Insight

Insight

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Mars mission consisting of a single lander. It will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to investigate the red planet’s interior. The data collected by InSight may help scientists understand how the terrestrial planets formed.

The artist concept shows the lander with its heat-flow probe and seismometer. The probe, contributed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), is designed to hammer itself 3 to 5 meters (about 16 feet) deep in order to monitor heat from the planet's interior. The seismometer, contributed by the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), will measure distant marsquakes while providing detailed information about the planet’s interior  structure. 

Scheduled for March 2016, the mission launch date was postponed due to issues with the seismometer. It will be at least two years (2018) before the next available launch window because of the relative positions of the planets.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Akatsuki

Akatsuki

The Akatsuki spacecraft, also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter (VCO), captured this image of Venus on December 6, 2015.

Launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in May 2010, the spacecraft arrived at Venus seven months later. It failed to enter orbit when a faulty valve in the fuel pressure system malfunctioned, which in turn affected the engine firing schedule. VCO flew by the planet and circled the Sun for five years before JAXA was finally able to place it into an alternative elliptical Venusian orbit on December 7, 2015.

Carrying a suite of six instruments, the spacecraft will study the dynamics of the planet’s atmosphere from orbit. It will also measure atmospheric temperatures and look for evidence of volcanic activity and lightning.

JAXA

 

Enceladus

Enceladus

On December 19, 2015, the Cassini spacecraft captured this image during its final close flyby of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Taken about 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) from the moon's surface, it also reveals the layered atmosphere of Saturn beyond.

Launched in 1997, Cassini began orbiting Saturn in 2004. It completed its initial four-year mission in 2008 and its first extended mission in 2010. The spacecraft remains in orbit, continuing to study the planet and its rings and moons on its second extended mission.

In late 2016, Cassini will begin an exciting set of orbits called the Grand Finale. During these orbits, it will collect data on Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields, ring mass, atmosphere, and ionosphere. It will also acquire the last views of Enceladus.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

 

Namib Dune

Namib Dune

On December 18, 2015, the Curiosity rover captured this view of Mars’ Namib Dune. This dark-sand dune is 5 meters (16 feet) high and 7 meters (23 feet) from the camera.

The dune is part of the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The mountain (arrow) is visible in the background.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

 

Bright Spots

Bright Spots

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured these close-ups of Occator, a crater on the dwarf planet Ceres. About 90 kilometers (60 miles) across, it contains the brightest spots on the dwarf planet. Scientists believe the spots contain salts, specifically a magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite.

Launched in 2007, Dawn arrived at Ceres in March 2015. About 940 kilometers (584 miles) wide, Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s believed to have a rocky core and a thick icy mantle.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

 

A Day on Pluto and Charon

A Day on Pluto and Charon

The best available images taken during New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto system were combined to create these unique views of Pluto (left) and its largest Moon Charon (right).

Using images taken of every side (except the south pole), these views reveal what a full rotation of the dwarf planet and moon would look like.

NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

 

Crater Count

Crater Count

The New Horizons team located more than 1,000 craters on this map of Pluto. Scientists count the number of impact craters to determine the age of a surface.

Older regions generally have more impact craters. Pluto’s oldest regions are about 4 billion years old. Its youngest areas may have formed within the past 10 million years.

NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

 

Asteroid 2015 TB145

Asteroid 2015 TB145

On October 31, 2015, Asteroid 2015 TB145 flew within 480,000 kilometers (300,000 miles) of Earth. This series of radar images was taken of the 1,300-foot (400-meter) wide asteroid before its closest approach. This is the closest known flyby of Earth by an object this large. 

The radar images were created using the Deep Space Network antenna in California and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia. The Deep Space Network antenna beamed a radar signal at the asteroid, and the Green Bank telescope received the reflection. 

Can you find the model of the Deep Space Network antenna? (It’s right behind you.)

NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR/NRAO/GB

 

Opportunity’s 7th Martian Winter

Opportunity’s 7th Martian Winter

On August 14, 2015, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity captured this image of Hinners Point, an outcrop at the northern edge of Marathon Valley. The rover has been investigating the valley since July. It became an important site after the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered clay minerals, called smectites, there. Like all clay minerals, smectites were once formed in the presence of water. 

The solar-powered rover has spent every previous winter standing still in one sunny spot, conserving energy. During this, its seventh Martian winter, Opportunity will be able to remain mobile. For several months starting in mid- to late October, the rover will operate on the southern side of Marathon Valley to take advantage of the Sun-facing slope. The shortest-daylight period will come in January 2016.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS

 

Frost Avalanches

Frost Avalanches

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's high-resolution imager HiRISE captured this image of a scarp (cliff) at the edge of the red planet’s north polar layered deposits. This feature is the site of the most frequent frost avalanches on Mars. The small white cloud (arrow) is likely carbon dioxide frost dislodged from above and in free fall.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

 

Mount Sharp

Mount Sharp

The Curiosity rover captured this view of the higher regions of Mount Sharp on September 9, 2015. Ridges packed with hematite, an iron oxide, exist alongside plains rich in clay minerals and rounded buttes containing sulfate minerals.

Deposited billions of years ago, these water-related minerals suggest a changing environment on early Mars. Mission scientists hope to explore these diverse areas with the Curiosity rover in the months and years ahead.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

Family Portrait

Family Portrait

To scale, this family portrait shows the four largest bodies in the Pluto system. The portrait is composed of individual images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 

Evidence for Liquid Water on Mars Today!

Evidence for Liquid Water on Mars Today!

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured this image of dark narrow streaks on the walls of Garni crater. Called recurring slope lineae, these streaks are believed to be formed by the flow of briny or salty liquid water on present-day Mars.

On September 28, 2015, NASA announced the possible connection between these features and flowing water on the red planet. Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, scientists found hydrated minerals, called perchlorates, in the streaks. These water-related minerals could lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, allowing it to exist within the shallow Martian subsurface. The streaks also seem to change over time, darkening and appearing to flow down slopes in warm seasons, and then fading away in cooler seasons.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 

Two Comets in One

Two Comets in One

The Rosetta spacecraft captured this image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) when it intercepted the comet in August 2014.

On September 28, 2015, Rosetta scientists announced that 67P/C-G is actually two comets that collided at low speed, which would explain its distinctive double-lobed shape. They made this discovery using high-resolution images to study the layers of material surrounding the comet’s nucleus.

Launched in 2004, Rosetta completed a 10-year journey to the outer solar system where it intercepted 67P/C-G. The spacecraft will stay in orbit around the comet until the end of 2015, studying it closely and mapping its surface.

Rosetta is an international mission led by the European Space Agency with support from NASA.

ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

 

Shaping the Moon

Shaping the Moon

Taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), this image reveals a lobate scarp (arrows) on the Moon’s surface. Scientists believe these small scarps or cliffs form as the lunar interior cools, causing the Moon to shrink and the crust to break. The terrain on one side is pushed upward, forming a fault scarp. 

Scientists using LROC imagery have discovered thousands of young lobate scarps. They are usually less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) long and only tens of meters high.

According to Thomas Watters, a scientist with the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravitational pull have influenced the alignment of the faults.

Watters is lead author of the paper describing this research published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Geology.

NASA/LRO/ASU/SI

 

New Target for New Horizons

New Target for New Horizons

In August 2015, NASA announced the next potential flyby candidate for the New Horizons spacecraft. Named 2014 MU69, this Kuiper Belt object (KBO) orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.

New Horizons was designed to perform more than just its historic flyby of Pluto in July 2015. Intended to also fly beyond the Pluto system and explore additional KBOs, the spacecraft carries extra fuel. Its communications and power systems were also designed for a longer, more distant journey.

Mission scientists want to study KBOs because they are thought to represent a well preserved, sample of what the outer solar system was like 4.6 billion years ago.

The artist concept shows New Horizons encountering a KBO.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

 

Space Peanut

Space Peanut

On July 24, 2015, Asteroid 1999 JD6 flew within 7.2 million kilometers (4.5 million miles) of Earth. These radar images of it were captured at its closest approach. The asteroid is a contact binary, an asteroid with two lobes stuck together. It is about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long, and its shape has earned the nickname “Space Peanut.”

The radar images were created using the Deep Space Network antenna in California and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia. The Deep Space Network antenna beamed a radar signal at the asteroid, and the Green Bank telescope received the reflection. 

There is a model of the Deep Space Network antenna in the Exploring the Planets gallery.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

 

Rosetta Spies Jet

Rosetta Spies Jet

The Rosetta spacecraft captured this sequence of images on July 29, 2015, showing a short-lived jet erupting from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Launched in 2004, Rosetta completed a 10-year journey to the outer solar system, where it intercepted the comet in August 2014. The spacecraft is comprised of an orbiter and a lander named Philae. In November 2014, Philae landed on the comet’s nucleus. Its primary mission lasted two-and-a-half days. Rosetta will orbit the comet until the end of 2015.

Rosetta is an international mission led by the European Space Agency with support from NASA.

ESA/Rosetta/MPS

 

Pluto in False-Color

Pluto in False-Color

Mission scientists combined four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. Enhanced color images help us to detect differences in the composition and texture of the dwarf planet’s surface.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

 

Pluto's Frozen Plains

Pluto's Frozen Plains

New Horizons captured this close-up (left) of Pluto’s surface on July 14. It reveals a large frozen plain estimated to be no more than 100 million years old. This plain is located within Pluto’s heart feature (arrow). The heart feature was informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute