THE LATEST IN PLANETARY MISSIONS
|Stardust - Sample Collection Confirmed!
Launched in 1999, Stardust is the first spacecraft to collect material from a comet and return it to Earth. On January 2, 2004, the spacecraft intercepted its target, comet Wild-2. Stardust collected cometary particles using an extremely light, silicon-based solid called aerogel.
The collected material was returned to Earth on January 15, 2006. The sample return capsule touched down on the Utah Test and Training Range at 2:10 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. Two days later, the Stardust science team opened the capsule and confirmed the presence of cometary particles within. The contents are currently being analyzed by the team and select scientists worldwide.
Ancient material retrieved from the comet will be compared to younger particles of interstellar dust collected by Stardust in 2000 and 2002. These samples may help us better understand how our galaxy evolved.
Images courtesy of NASA
|Stardust – Looking At Samples From A Comet
1. The sample collector used by the Stardust spacecraft to capture particles from comet Wild-2. The grid is filled with an extremely light substance called aerogel.
2. The science team takes a closer look at the sample collector after it returned to Earth on January 15, 2006.
3. Closeup view of a comet particle. About 2 micrometers (2/25,000 inch) in size, it is composed of a mineral called forsterite, also known in gem form as peridot. The cloudy substance clinging to the crystals is aerogel.
Images 1 and 2 courtesy of NASA
Image 3 courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Washington
|Mars Exploration Rover Spirit- GongGong
On January 28, 2006, Spirit's microscopic imager captured this spectacular close-up of a small but complex rock named "GongGong". Only 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) wide, this rock possesses a sponge-like texture similiar to volcanic rocks found on Earth.
Billions of years ago, GongGong probably started out as a mass of molten lava. Within the lava were trapped bubbles of volcanic gas. As the lava cooled, the gas escaped leaving the rock looking like a petrified sponge.
The rounded and well-worn edges of the rock also indicate that it probably withstood many sand and dust storms. Small deposits of sand and dust can also be seen within the rock's holes and crevices.
Image courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech/Cornell/U.S. Geological Survey
|New Horizons Launched!
New Horizons is the first spacecraft sent to study Pluto and its moon Charon. Launched on January 19, 2006, it will travel to the outer reaches of the solar system and encounter Pluto and Charon in 2015. For five months, New Horizons will examine their geology and surface features, map the composition of their surfaces and temperatures, and perform a detailed study of Pluto's atmosphere.
Artist's concept courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
|Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Launched August 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at the red planet on March 10, 2006. MRO will spend one Martian year (nearly two Earth years) studying Mars from orbit.
MRO's high-resolution imager HiRISE will study the layering and structure of the Martian surface. The shallow subsurface sounding radar SHARAD will map geologic deposits beneath the surface and search for buried water ice.
Two scientists from the Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies are involved with the MRO mission. Dr. John Grant is a HiRISE co-investigator, and Dr. Bruce Campbell is on the SHARAD science.
Artist's concept courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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