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.
Some supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station were launched on Saturday. While this is typically a fairly routine process, this particular launch involved a SpaceX rocket that is meant to eventually be reusable. Rather than letting the initial stages of the rocket fall into the ocean, as is usually done, operators attempted to recover the first stage intact by landing it on a floating landing pad.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work, and the rocket landed a bit too hard and broke apart. The attempt was apparently quite close to working, which means that we may be close to a reusable launch system. That could be much cheaper than current methods where the rockets must be built anew for each launch. SpaceX officials claim that the chances of success were estimated to only be around 50-50, so the failure was not totally unexpected.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble space telescope, which will be later this year, a team of astronomers have released an updated version of one of the most famous Hubble images – the feature known as the “Pillars of Creation.”
This is both a really beautiful image and also a useful image for science. The new image covers a much larger region in the sky and also includes measurements at infrared wavelengths. It has a lot more detail and also shows the same feature 20 years after the original. The astronomers have noticed some important differences between the images that give hints about what is going on in these gas clouds. The most important difference mentioned in many of the articles is what looks like a jet that was emitted from a newly-formed or forming star.
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.
It turns out that the Philae comet lander bounced a bit when it reached the surface and ended up in a place that didn’t have much light. It ran out of power on Friday, although it’s been reported that it completed the vast majority of its science goals. Supposedly, it may get enough sunlight to turn back on next summer and could continue taking measurements. So, while the mission didn’t go perfectly, it seems that it was still pretty successful.
ESA is reporting that the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae lander has successfully landed on the comet and has been able to send back some data.