What’s Out There?

Posted on Dec 16, 2011

My friend, UVA astronomer Ed Murphy, recently sent me this list of all the spacecraft that are now known to be exploring space. This is what’s out there. At least, this is what we know for certain is out there. (note: this list does not include the dozens of astronomy satellites and Earth-observing satellites).

NASA MESSENGER mission – Launched August 2004. Entered Mercury orbit in March 2011. MESSENGER is studying the geology of Mercury and Mercury’s magnetic field. Has returned over 60,000 images of Mercury’s surface.

European Space Agency (ESA) Venus Express – Launched Nov. 2005, arrived at Venus April 2006.  Mission is studying the thick atmosphere and clouds of Venus.

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – launched and arrived at Moon in June 2009. Most capable lunar robotic mission ever. LRO is studying the geology of the Moon and its interior. Also scouted potential landing sites for future crewed missions. Carried LCROSS (mission to crash a satellite into the south pole of the Moon).

At Mars
NASA Mars Odyssey – Launched in April 2001, arrived at Mars October 2001. Studying the distribution of minerals on the Martian surface. Found evidence of substantial ice in Mars’ polar regions.

ESA Mars Express – Launched June 2003, arrived at Mars December 2003. Taking high resolution images of the surface of Mars to study its geology and history.

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – Launched August 2005, arrived at Mars in March of 2006. Studying the history of water on Mars.

NASA Opportunity Rover – Launched June 2003, arrived January 2004. Opportunity has driven 21.34 miles and is at the north rim of 13-mile wide Endeavour Crater. Its twin rover, Spirit, died in March 2010.

Asteroid Belt
NASA Dawn – Launched Sept. 2007, arrived at 350-mile wide asteroid Vesta in July 2011. Studying the surface and history of Vesta. Will depart Vesta in July 2012 and arrive at 600-mile wide asteroid Ceres in Feb. 2015.

At Saturn
Cassini mission – Launched Oct. 1997, arrive at Saturn in July 2004. Studying the atmosphere and composition of Saturn, its moons and rings. Deployed the Huygens lander on Saturn’s moon Titan.

The following missions have been launched and are in transit

In transit to Venus
Japan’s Akatsuki/IKAROS – Launched in May 2010, failed to go into orbit around Venus December 2010. Now in orbit around the Sun. Will return to Venus in 6 years, when they will try to place it in orbit again. Carried IKAROS into orbit, which was the first interplanetary spacecraft to demonstrate a solar sail (66 ft across).

In transit to the Moon
NASA Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) – Launched in Sept. 2011, consists of two satellites that will fly low over the Moon mapping the gravity of the Moon. Will enter orbit on New Year’s Eve.

In transit to Mars
NASA Curiosity Rover – Launched Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. Journey to Mars will take 8.5 months (landing in August 2012). Goal is to survive on Mars for 1-2 years. About 10 times more capable than current rovers.

Russia Phobos-Grunt mission – Launched Nov. 9, 2011. Currently stuck in low Earth orbit. Quite uncertain if Russians can save this mission. Goal was to land on Mars’ moon Phobos. Also was carrying a Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1 that was to orbit Mars.

To Jupiter
NASA Juno – Launched August 2011, should arrive at Jupiter in 5 years (July 2016). Will orbit the poles of Jupiter studying the interior of the planet and its atmosphere.

To Pluto
NASA New Horizons – Launched January 2006, should arrive at Pluto on July 4, 2015. It is currently just beyond the orbit of Uranus. One day flyby to study the dwarf planet and its 4 moons. Will approach as close as 6200 miles.

To Comet
Churyumov-Gerasimenko: ESA Rosetta – Launched March 2004, should arrive at comet in June 2014. Will land on comet in November 2014

Heading out of the Solar System
NASA Voyager 1 – Launched in Sept. 1977
NASA Voyager 2 – Launched in August 1977
Both spacecraft studying the solar wind and its interaction with the interstellar medium (the gas between the stars). Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft from Earth (current 119 times further than Earth). One way light travel time to Voyager 1 is 16 hours, 36 minutes.

Also “out there” are:
China’s Chang’E 2 – Launched October 2010 to study the Moon. Recently left Moon orbit to head to the L2 Lagrange point (a place where the Earth and Sun’s gravity balance),a bout 900,000 miles from Earth.

NASA Stereo A and B – Pair of identical satellites launched in October 2006 to study the Sun from viewpoints no available on Earth.

NASA and ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – Launched in Dec 1995 to study the Sun. Still alive and providing data, but largely replaced by the Solar Dynamics Observatory

NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory – Launched in Feb 2010 to study the Sun from the L1 Lagrange point.

Deep Impact – Launched in January 2005, crashed a probe into Comet Temple 1 on July 4, 2005. Mission extended. Flew by Comet Hartley 2 in November 2010.