NASA announced a couple days ago that they will be holding a press conference for a big announcement about Mars. The announcement is later today. Various people are speculating about what the announcement might be, with many suggesting that it probably has something to do with evidence for water on Mars. The press release has minimal information, so we’ll just have to wait and see what this is about.
Supposedly, a rumor had been flying around the internet that a large asteroid would strike Earth in September. I haven’t encountered this rumor, but it seems that it was big enough for someone from the NASA group looking for things like asteroids to respond. In case you were worried, they can confirm that a civilization-ending asteroid will not be hitting us any time soon.
New Horizons has reported back after its Pluto encounter, and it looks like everything was successful. It should start transmitting science data back soon, although it will take a long time for all the data to get back. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some of the initial results soon.
NASA’s Messenger probe ended its decade-long mission by crashing into the surface of Mercury. It had been orbiting Mercury for about four years and had spent that time studying various properties of the planet. Apparently, in recent months, the Messenger team had positioned the probe to bring its orbit very close to the surface. Doing this requires fuel, and the probe finally ran out of fuel, forcing it to crash into the surface.
The Dawn space probe, which was launched by NASA in 2007, reached the dwarf planet Ceres and started orbiting it earlier today. According to the press release, Dawn is the first spacecraft to be placed into orbit around a dwarf planet. Ceres is located in an orbit between those of Mars and Jupiter, so it isn’t that far away by astronomical scales. One of the reasons why it took so long for the probe to get there is that it already flew by Vesta, another dwarf planet. While in orbit, Dawn will study Ceres with a number of instruments, including a radiation detector, a light spectrometer, and a camera operating at visible wavelengths. The scientific payload was produced by various agencies in the US and Europe. Scientists working on the mission hope to learn about things like the dwarf planet’s interior composition, surface composition, and gravitational fields.
The first test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft seems to have gone well, with the capsule reaching several thousand miles above Earth and then reentering and landing in the ocean. The test was postponed for a day due to some technical glitches and wind problems yesterday.
NASA hopes to run a test launch of the new Orion capsule tomorrow morning, at least as long as conditions are right for a launch. The unmanned test will take the capsule far beyond the low Earth orbit where the ISS and the space shuttles operated. After testing, there are preliminary plans for several missions that could use Orion. Among these are a possible flyby of a captured asteroid and also (hopefully) even the first manned mission to Mars, or at least some testing needed for such a mission.
Reportedly, Orion is basically a more advanced equivalent to the old Apollo capsule used to land on the moon. Hopefully, everything will go well with this test so we can get closer to a return to long-distance spaceflight.
Earlier today, NASA announced the winners of contracts for developing spacecraft to send astronauts to the Interantional Space Station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have been awarded contracts, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX getting $2.6 billion.
I would guess that Boeing received the most because it has a long track record of supplying equipment to the US government. NASA can safely assume that Boeing is capable of completing the contract. SpaceX hopes to be able to do spaceflight cheaper than anyone else but also hasn’t previously been involved in such a major undertaking. The contract shows that NASA is confident that SpaceX can do it, but they also won’t want to risk the whole program by awarding all the money to a company that hasn’t shown itself to be reliable.
Having two options is also a good idea so that a delay in one of them doesn’t necessarily delay the return of NASA-led manned launches. It might also turn out that the two vehicles are better at different things, so maybe some missions will favor Boeing and some SpaceX. Having some competition might also keep costs down.
NASA hopes to have the first launches in 2017, so we’ll still have a couple more years without having manned launch capabilities. Many had criticized the US government for ending the shuttle program because of this gap with no manned launch vehicle. The shuttle was a decades-old design that was very expensive and very risky for the crew, so I think that discontinuing shuttle launches was probably the right move. We should have already had a replacement vehicle ready, but not having one is not a sufficient justification to continue risking astronauts’ lives when safer but not US-led options were available.
NASA announced earlier today that the New Horizons spacecraft has crossed Neptune’s orbit. New Horizons is on its way toward Pluto. It will perform detailed studies of Pluto when it flies by in July next year and then hopefully continue on to study some Kuiper Belt objects.