Elsewhere in the solar system, the New Horizons probe to Pluto is on target and operating well. The latest mission report describes a passing encounter with an asteroid, the naming of Pluto’s newly discovered moons (Nix and Hydra–the fainter dots over to the right), Pluto’s passing between a relatively bright star and the Earth, and assorted preparations for next year’s Jupiter fly-by.
Meanwhile, Messenger continues another long and careful approach to the innermost planet. Multiple fly-bys of Venus and Mercury are needed to save precious fuel. Otherwise, the direct approach to Mercury, the third-closest planet to the Earth, would require substantial slowing down to park a spacecraft in orbit there. The latest mission report tells:
MESSENGER had been flying with its back to the Sun since a March 8 “flop,” allowing it to maintain temperatures within safe operating ranges at Sun distances greater than 0.95 astronomical units (1 AU is Earth’s distance from the Sun). Mission plans call for the spacecraft to keep its sunshade facing the Sun for the remainder of its cruise and science orbital operations around Mercury. “Initial indications look very good” says MESSENGER Mission Operations Manager Mark Holdridge, of APL. “Spacecraft temperatures are coming down as expected and all systems and instruments are nominal.” The team will now turn its attention to preparing for the first Venus flyby on October 24.
Another Venus probe, this one from the European Space Agency (ESA), has been returning interesting results. Lots of movies on that page, if you care to view. Below, I’ve clipped images taken about an Earth day apart from high orbit that capture the thick atmosphere’s double vortex over the Venusian south pole:
And there’s Mars. There’s always something going on at Mars, and probably will always be as long as some Earthling has a space program. You have MRO. You have two rovers still in operation.
I don’t know how this image of Burns Cliff will turn out on my site, but if it’s poor, just go to this link with your 3D glasses.
Mars Odyssey is still returning good science after five years. Here’s a pretty picture over on the left. A full resolution image is here, and is much more spectacular.
Mars Express is an ESA effort and has equally impressive pictures, like this one on the right from the Tharsis region. Trust me; you want to go to the full size view for this one.
This area of Mars features shield volcanoes. The most well-known shield volcano on Earth is Hawaii’s Big Island. Because of the drift of the Earth’s crust over interior hot spots, our planet’s shield volcanoes manifest as island chains when they pop up from the oceans.
Yellowstone is another shield volcano, and geologists have tracked its progress southwest from Idaho and Washington over the past millions of years. Closest approach to Kansas City will be in another 60 million years or so. Maybe I’d better not wait for Yellowstone to come to me.