Exploring the Planets

What's New in Planetary Exploration?

 

Opportunity's Marathon

Opportunity's Marathon

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity arrived at the red planet on January 25, 2004.  It landed in Eagle Crater in a region called Meridiani Planum. The map reveals the rover's journey (gold line) across the Martian surface. On March 24, 2015 (Opportunity’s 3,968th Martian day, or sol) the rover had driven 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles)—almost exactly the length of an Olympic marathon.

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS

 

Dawn Enters Orbit Around Ceres

Dawn Enters Orbit Around Ceres

Launched in 2007, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft undertook a four-year journey to reach the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Its targets, Vesta and Ceres, are the two largest bodies in the belt. In 2011 and 2012, it spent nearly 14 months studying Vesta, an asteroid as wide as the state of Arizona.

Dawn arrived at Ceres, a dwarf planet, on March 6, 2015. About 590 miles (950 kilometers) wide, it has a rounded shape that suggests a layered interior similar to Mercury and Earth. Scientists believe it has a rocky core, a thick icy mantle, and maybe an ocean hidden beneath an icy crust.

Dawn captured this image of Ceres on March 1, 2015. It was taken from about 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles) away.

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

 

Asteroid 2004 BL86

Asteroid 2004 BL86

On January 26, 2015, Asteroid 2004 BL86 performed a close flyby of Earth. This radar image of it was captured during the asteroid’s closest approach, at a distance of about 1.2 million kilometers (745,000 miles).

The asteroid is about 325 meters (1,100 feet) across and is orbited by a small moon (arrow). To date, the flyby was the closest performed by a known asteroid of this size. While it was close enough for Earth-based study, it wasn’t close enough to be considered a threat.

The radar image was created using data collected by NASA’s Deep Space Network in Goldstone, California.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Philae Lands on Comet

Philae Lands on Comet

On November 12, 2014, the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae Lander successfully landed on the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The landing was not without some excitement. The lander’s automated harpoon system failed to work, allowing Philae to bounce twice before coming safely to rest. This mosaic is composed of a series of images captured by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera before, during, and after Philae’s first touchdown.

Unfortunately, the solar-powered lander ended up in the shadow of a cliff. Within its two-and-a-half day primary mission, it completed its science data collection and transmitted the data to Earth. Then it entered hibernation due to power loss. As the comet approaches the Sun there may be enough light available to wake up the lander.

Rosetta is an international mission led by the European Space Agency.

Image courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

 

Formation of Mount Sharp

Formation of Mount Sharp

Created using data collected by three Mars orbiters, this image (top) reveals Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. In 2012 the Curiosity rover landed near the foot of Mount Sharp. Its lower rock layers interested mission scientists because they may contain minerals that form in relation to water. During its third year on Mars, Curiosity finally studied the layers up close. Mission scientists discovered that Mount Sharp may have been built by sediments deposited in a large lake bed.

This diagram (bottom left) reveals how Mount Sharp may have formed billions of years ago. (A) Gale Crater was filled with layers of sediment that were deposited during wet and dry periods. The environment alternated between that of lakes, rivers, and deserts. (B) Over time the layers were eroded away, creating the mountain. Curiosity captured this image (bottom right) on August 7, 2014. This type of evenly layered rock is seen in lake-floor deposits on Earth.

Gale Crater image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
Diagram courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Layered rock image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

Beagle 2 Found

Beagle 2 Found

On January 16, 2015, NASA announced the discovery of Beagle 2, the United Kingdom's long-lost Mars Lander. Carried by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, Beagle 2 was released for a Christmas Day 2003 touchdown, but was never heard from after its expected landing. The lander, and some hardware ejected during descent, were found in these images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's high-resolution imager HiRISE.

Images courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratoy-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Leicester