OSIRIS-REx – A Sample Return Mission To Asteroid Bennu

Tomorrow, September 8, 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. It will take two years for the craft to reach its destination, the asteroid Bennu, where it will collect a sample and return it to Earth. The mission is a partnership between the University of Arizona, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lockheed Martin Company.

OSIRIS-REx Mission Logo - Source: NASA

OSIRIS-REx Mission Logo – Source: NASA

The OSIRIS-REx mission will send a spacecraft to 101955 Bennu (hereafter referred to simply as Bennu), a potentially Earth-impacting asteroid with an average diameter of 492 meters (1,614 ft; 0.306 mi). The mission has five primary science objectives (the mission, OSIRIS-REx, takes its name from an acronym of these objectives):

• Origins: Return and analyze a pristine carbon rich
asteroid sample
• Spectral Interpretation: Provide ground truth or
direct observations for telescopic data of the
entire asteroid population
• Resource Identification: Map the chemistry and
mineralogy of a primitive carbon rich asteroid
• Security: Measure the effect of sunlight on the
orbit of a small asteroid, known as the Yarkovsky
effect—the slight push created when the asteroid
absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat
• Regolith Explorer: Document the regolith (layer
of loose, outer material) at the sampling site at
scales down to the sub-centimeter

The $800-million (not including launch vehicle costs) mission budget will support the program through the return of the sample capsule in 2023, and two years of analysis and cataloging.

The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company at its facility near Denver, Colorado, is 6.2 meters (20.25 feet) long with its solar arrays deployed, and 2.43 meters (8 feet) by 2.43 meters (8 feet) wide. It’s 3.15 meters (10.33 feet) tall. The total weight of the spacecraft, including fuel, is 2,110 kilograms (4,650 pounds)–unfueled, it weighs 880 kilograms (1,940 pounds). It boasts two solar panel generators that produce between 1,226 watts and 3,000 watts of electrical power depending on its distance from the Sun.

Following its September 8, 2016 launch, the spacecraft will undergo an Earth flyby in September of 2017, before arriving at Bennu in August of 2018. According to the program fact sheet, “[t]he spacecraft will begin a detailed survey of Bennu two months after slowing to encounter Bennu. The process will last over a year, and, as part of it, OSIRIS-REx will map potential sample sites. The sample is expected to occur in July of 2020, when the craft’s sampling arm will contact Bennu’s surface, release a burst of nitrogen gas, and capture the resulting particles. It’s expected to collect up between 60 grams (2 ounces) and 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). After the sample is taken, OSIRIS-REx’s Sample Return Capsule will wait for a proper alignment with Earth for the return trip home. The sample is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on September 24, 2023–just over seven years after its 2016 launch.

OSIRIS-REx Survey Animation - Source: University of Arizona

OSIRIS-REx Survey Animation – Source: University of Arizona

Why Bennu?

In addition to Bennu being a good candidate to study the building blocks of our solar system (“An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, revolutionizing our understanding of the early solar system, and cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites“), I mentioned above that Bennu is a “potentially Earth-impacting asteroid”. The chances of Bennu impacting Earth are slim–0.037%, and that’s not even until the period between 2175 – 2196–but it still serves as a good model to use to understand both the hazards and resources that coincide with near-Earth asteroids.

Here’s to a successful launch tomorrow, and a successful mission over the next seven years!

Godspeed OSIRIS-REx! Ad Astra!

Want more information on the mission? The NASA Press Kit has a wealth of information.

Juno: NASA’s Second New Frontiers Mission

Juno Mission Insignia

Juno Mission Insignia – Credit: NASA

NASA’s New Frontiers program is a set of solar system exploration missions designed to address “strategic goals in planetary science through a series of moderate size space missions” (you can read the entire program plan here). New Frontiers consolidates a number of long-term space missions into a single program that share a funding source, management structure, and goals, yet maintain their independent identities. New Horizons, NASA’s recent mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, is considered the first mission of the New Frontiers program. The second mission is named Juno. Launched in 2011 with its sights set on our solar system’s red-spotted giant, Juno is poised to arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Let’s take a look at the mission and what we can expect to learn.

Juno: What’s In a Name?

Juno takes its name from Greek and Roman mythology. NASA draws the connection between the spacecraft and the myths as such:

Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. It was Jupiter’s wife, the goddess Juno, who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature. The Juno spacecraft will also look beneath the clouds to see what the planet is up to, not seeking signs of misbehavior, but helping us to understand the planet’s structure and history.


(It’s probably for the best that they left out the part about how Juno was, in addition to being Jupiter’s wife, also his sister.)

Juno Lifts Off

Juno Lifts Off – Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Launch and Earth Fly-by

Juno launched atop the reliable and powerful Atlas V rocket engine on August 5, 2011. This engine contained five solid rocket boosters, along with a Centaur upper stage engine. The launch was flawless. After the solid rocket boosters were expended and jettisoned, the Centaur upper stage ignited and burned for six minutes, placing Juno in a parking orbit around the Earth. Juno coasted for thirty minutes towards the destination for the second Centaur burn. 40 minutes after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, the second Centaur burn was executed. It burned for nine minutes as it accelerated Juno on a trajectory to escape Earth’s orbit. From there, the Centaur engine separated from the spacecraft and Juno was on its own. Juno unfurled her solar panels and settled into a five-year journey to her mythical partner.

Juno underwent a series of deep space maneuvers that brought it back near Earth, two years and two months into its voyage. By now, Juno had already traveled 1.6 billion kilometers (994 million miles). Juno came within 559 kilometers (347 miles) of Earth, borrowing our planet’s gravity to boost its speed with an additional 3.9 kilometers per second (8,800 miles per hour). By the time Juno reaches Jupiter, it will have traveled more than 2,800 million kilometers (1.7 billion miles).

While near Earth, Juno did more than just steal some of our velocity. Juno’s science team activated a number of the spacecraft’s instruments and pointed them at Earth, acting as a sort of dress rehearsal for Jupiter.

Juno will be the second spacecraft to orbit and study Jupiter, preceded by the Galileo mission that performed from 1989 to 2003.

At Jupiter

Artist's concept art of Juno at Jupiter

Artist’s concept art of Juno at Jupiter – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once Juno arrives at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, it will begin conducting its primary mission objectives. Juno will orbit Jupiter in a highly-elliptical orbit that will take it sweeping in close to the planet over one of its poles, zipping past the other pole in about two hours, before heading out beyond the orbit of Jupiter’s moon Callisto, repeating every 14 days.

Juno is loaded with instruments that will measure the oxygen and hydrogen ratios in Jupiter’s atmosphere, determine the mass of Jupiter’s core, map the gas giant’s magnetic and gravitational fields, and other important observations and experiments. These will allow us to determine how Jupiter formed, determine its structure below the clouds, and establish the source of the planet’s magnetic field.


Juno is also equipped with a visible light camera named JunoCam. Due to Jupiter’s damaging radiation and magnetic fields, JunoCam is only expected to operate for about 7 or 8 orbits; however, while it’s alive it’s expected to produce some fantastic images. Its specific targets will include Jupiter’s polar region and lower-latitude cloud belts, and will boast a resolution of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per pixel.

One of the best things about JunoCam is its strong emphasis on education and public outreach. For months now, a JunoCam website has been accepting images of Jupiter captured by amateur astronomers. These images will be publicly discussed during the next couple of months before a round of voting occurs to select the locations on Jupiter for JunoCam to image. Once the images have been captured and sent to Earth, the raw data will be posted on the JunoCam website for anyone to process and share.

Stay Tuned

If you want to stay up-to-date with the mission, you can watch the program page or follow the Twitter account below:

While you’re at it, you should follow TheStarSplitter Twitter account as well! Stay informed on Juno, and everything else space related.

Galileo Spacecraft: First Orbiter of Jupiter

Artist rendering of Galileo arriving at Jupiter

Artist rendering of Galileo arriving at Jupiter – Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Atlantis carried a special payload during its STS-34 mission. Commander Don Williams and crew transported the Galileo spacecraft into Earth orbit, from which point it was launched on a years-long voyage to Jupiter. Galileo would become the first spacecraft to orbit an outer planet and would go on to reveal fascinating views of the gas giant and its moons, as well as make monumental discoveries about the nature of the Jovian system.

Quick Facts:

  • Launch Date: October 18, 1989, Shuttle Atlantis STS-34
  • Primary Mission: October ’89 to December ’97.
  • Extended Missions: 3, from ’97 to ’03.
  • Number of Jupiter orbits: 34
  • Total distance traveled during mission: 4,631,778,000 km (approx 2.8 billion miles)
  • Mission End: September 21, 2003

Getting Galileo to Jupiter

Work on the Galileo craft began in 1977, after the exploration of Jupiter was listed as the number one priority in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey published in 1968. Fly-bys of the massive planet were conducted by the twin Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, but Galileo was set to do more than just perform a fly-by. It would launch an instrument-laden probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and then continue to orbit the planet for years. This mission would provide knowledge of the Jupiter system that could hardly even be imagined.

Galileo deploying from Shuttle Atlantis

Galileo deploying from Shuttle Atlantis – Credit: NASA

Galileo suffered a number of postponements. The first planned launch was to be from Space Shuttle Columbia in 1982, but development delays in the Space Shuttle program made that early of a launch unfeasible. The upside is that this gave the Galileo developers more time to work on the probe. Further planned launches and postponements occurred in 1984, 1985, and 1986.

As we all know, 1986 was the year of the Challenger disaster. Galileo would be put on hold during the 32-month hiatus that followed the tragedy, as every detail of the Shuttle program was examined and made safer. Galileo was originally planned to be attached to a liquid hydrogen-fueled Centaur-G booster; however, new safety protocols following Challenger prohibited the booster from being carried in the Space Shuttle’s payload bay. Mission designers had to reconsider how they would get Galileo from the Shuttle’s low Earth orbit to Jupiter. They decided on employing a solid-fuel Inertial Upper Stage booster (IUS). Whereas the Centaur-G would have propelled Galileo on a short and direct trajectory to Jupiter, the IUS would take longer and also require some technical gravitational slingshot maneuvers to make it to the gas giant.

Galileo was finally launched from Space Shuttle Atlantis, during mission STS-34 on October 18, 1989. From there, its IUS booster was started and it began its unique “VEEGA”, or Venus Earth Earth Gravity Assist, maneuvers.

Galileo spacecraft trajectory

Galileo spacecraft trajectory – Source: NASA

  • Galileo flew by Venus on February 10, 1990 at an altitude of 16,000 km (10,000 miles).
  • It then flew by Earth on December 8, 1990 at an altitude 960 km (597 miles).
  • Its trajectory took it near Asteroid Gaspra on October 29, 1991, coming within 1,601 km (1,000 miles).
  • Then it was back to another Earth fly-by on December 8, 1992, this time at an altitude of only 303 km (188 miles).
  • On its way back towards the outer solar system it flew by Asteroid Ida on August 28, 1993, coming within 2,400 km (1,400 miles) of the asteroid.

On its way to Jupiter, Galileo was positioned perfectly to observe the doomed Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it impacted the planet. Pieces of the comet, having been torn into fragments by Jupiter’s immense tidal forces, impacted Jupiter from July 16 – 22, 1994, on the side facing away from Earth. Fortunately, Galileo had a prime view and was able to record the impact. Earth-based telescopes could only observe the impact sites as they rotated into view a few minutes afterwards.

In July, 1995, Galileo released its atmospheric probe component. For the next five months, the probe and orbiter continued their cruise to Jupiter. On December 7, 1995, Galileo had arrived. The orbiter and probe diverged onto their separate missions.

Atmospheric Probe

On December 7, 1995 Galileo’s atmospheric probe sliced into Jupiter’s atmosphere at 47.6 kilometers per second (106,000 miles per hour). As the atmosphere began to slow the probe, it deployed its drogue and main parachutes and dropped its heat shield to expose its scientific instruments. The probe began recording data and transmitting it up to the main Galileo spacecraft orbiting high above, which then re-transmitted the data to Earth. The probe recorded 58 minutes of data on Jupiter’s weather and atmosphere. Towards the end of its descent, the probe measured wind speeds of 724 kilometers per hour (450 miles per hour). The intense heat and pressure of Jupiter’s atmosphere melted and vaporized the probe less than an hour into its journey through Jupiter’s atmosphere.


While the atmospheric probe’s job was complete, the Galileo orbiter still had years of work left to do. The orbiter received its electric power from two radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). That may sound complicated, but it’s really quite simple. These RTGs carry the radioactive element plutonium-238. As the plutonium decays, it releases energy in the form of heat. That heat can then be easily turned into electricity through the Seebeck effect. This type of energy generation is long-lasting and reliable, as well as impervious to the cold temperatures and strong radiation fields of the Jupiter system. Galileo carried two of these RTGs, with a combined total of approximately 22.7 kilograms (50 pounds) of plutonium-238. While these radioactive components had been used on previous space missions, Galileo drew extra concern due to it being both carried by the Shuttle as well as the multiple Earth fly-bys. Anti-nuclear activists protested Galileo’s launch, fearing a malfunction could cause radiation poisoning for many thousands of people on Earth. NASA, however, argued that the probability of risk was extremely low.

Jupiter's ring system, as observed by Galileo

Jupiter’s ring system, as observed by Galileo – Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Galileo conducted slow orbits of Jupiter, approximately 2 months long each. The orbits were elongated, and designed to bring the spacecraft within different distances to Jupiter, which allowed it to sample different areas of the planet’s magnetosphere. These orbits were also designed to bring Galileo and its instruments into close fly-bys of Jupiter’s largest moons. Galileo completed its primary mission on December 7, 1997; however, the craft was still functioning extremely well and was able to continue taking measurements and sending valuable data back to Earth. Its mission was extended three times, operating until 2003.

Volcanic activity on Io, as observed by Galileo

Volcanic activity on Io, as observed by Galileo – Credit: NASA/JPL

The orbiter made several discoveries during its mission:

  • It discovered a possible ocean under Europa’s icy crust
  • Revealed Ganymede’s very own magnetic field, the only moon known to have this feature
  • Made the first observations of ammonia clouds in another planet’s atmosphere
  • It created hundreds of images of Jupiter’s large ‘Galilean moons’: Io, Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede
  • It measured the high levels of volcanic activity on Io

Sagan Criteria for Life

The late astronomer Carl Sagan devised a set of experiments to be conducted by Galileo during its first fly-by of Earth. The purpose of the experiments was to see if life could be easily detected from a spacecraft. The results of the experiments were published by Sagan in 1993, in the scientific journal Nature. The experiments were a success, as Galileo was easily able to detect what are referred to as the ‘Sagan requirements for life’. These include strong absorption of light at the red end of the spectrum (indicative of plant photosynthesis), absorption bands of molecular oxygen (again, indicative of plant life), the detection of methane in the atmosphere (a gas created by either volcanic or biological activity), and the detection of narrowband radio wave transmissions (could indicate a technologically advanced civilization).

By the end of its mission, Galileo had conducted 34 orbits of Jupiter and had made multiple fly-bys of Jupiter’s moons: Io 7 times, Callisto 8 times , Ganymede 8 times, Europa 11 times, and one fly-by of Amalthea.

Due in part to Galileo’s discovery of potential oceans on Europa (and possibly other Jovian moons), the decision was made to end the orbiter’s mission by sending it to the same fate as the atmospheric probe eight years prior. Rather than risk contaminating (with either Earth bacteria or radiation from the RTGs) one of Jupiter’s potentially life-harboring moons, Galileo would be ordered to impact Jupiter. On September 21, 2003, Galileo entered Jupiter’s atmosphere at 48.2 kilometers per second (108,000 mph).

The Galilean Moons: Jupiter's four largest satellites

The Galilean Moons: Jupiter’s four largest satellites – Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

The total mission cost was approximately $1.4 billion USD, had more than 100 scientist partners from many different countries, and involved the work of more than 800 individuals.

In spite of postponements, an antenna that failed to fully deploy, and a tape recorder malfunction, Galileo performed magnificently. It was a mission that brought us up close and personal with our Solar system’s largest planet and provided us with a much more detailed understanding of the Jovian system. Galileo paved the way for future studies of Jupiter and its moons. Its successor, the Juno orbiter, is currently en route and arriving in July of 2016, and plans are being considered to investigate Europa’s oceans. Like the astronomer that the spacecraft took its name from, Galileo Galilei, this mission revealed new worlds that we previously could only distantly wonder about.


Beagle 2 Found

On June 2nd, 2003, a Soyuz rocket with a Fregat upper stage blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. The rocket carried the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission instruments on an exciting journey to Mars. After spending less than a couple hours in a 200km (124 mile) parking orbit around Earth, the Fregat fired again, propelling the spacecraft towards a Mars transfer orbit. After three minutes, Mars Express separated from the Fregat and began its sixth month trek to the red planet.1

Artist's impression of Beagle 2 lander. -  ESA/Denman productions

Artist’s impression of Beagle 2 lander. –
ESA/Denman productions

Mars Express consisted of two main components: the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. The two components were to separate, with the former continuing to orbit, map and study the planet and the latter to drop into the thin Martian atmosphere, land, and conduct research from the surface. On Christmas morning in 2003, Beagle 2 dropped onto Mars’s surface and was never heard from again. Many attempts were made to communicate with the lander, but no response was forthcoming. By February 2004, with no communications received from the Beagle, it was officially declared lost. The Mars Express orbiter, however, was a success and has been capturing important data and wonderful images of Mars for over a decade now.

Fast forward twelve years to the end of 2014. Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express team, and other colleagues continue to sift through images produced by the HiRISE camera that’s aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Croon had requested images of the planned landing area through HiWish, a public suggestion page for HiRISE targets. Against any likely odds, Croon spotted something on the edge of the frame in one of the images he acquired. The contrast was low in the initial image and he wasn’t convinced his candidate was anything special. He requested additional imagery from the same location. In the new images, his candidate was a bright spot that appeared to move slightly between images. This was suggestive of being consistent with sunlight reflecting off of various parts of the Beagle 2. Some careful image clean-up work conducted by the HiRISE team provided even clearer views of the object in question, all but confirming that the Beagle 2 was finally found.

December 15, 2014 image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing what's believed to be the long-lost Beagle 2. -  NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Univ. of Leicester

December 15, 2014 image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing what’s believed to be the long-lost Beagle 2. –
NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Univ. of Leicester

Subsequent discussion and analysis of the images suggests that the Beagle 2 only partially deployed its petal-like solar panels. The communications antenna would only have been revealed after a full deployment, thus the suspected reason why Beagle 2 never sent a message confirming it’s landing.

Labelled grey-scale image identifies the lander, and its parachute and rear cover.

Labelled grey-scale image identifies the lander, and its parachute and rear cover. –
University of Leicester/ Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

While it’s still a mystery as to the cause of the lander failing to deploy completely after landing, it is much relief to the team members that have spent the past 12 years wondering what had ever become of their precious lander.

  1. The Fregat coasted off into interplanetary space.

The Pioneer Plaque: Our Calling Card to the Cosmos

In 1972 and 1973, Pioneer 10 and 11, respectively, left planet Earth with one-way tickets out of the Solar System. These two pioneers (heh) explored Jupiter, Saturn, and their associated moons before heading out into the great unknown on an uncharted interstellar voyage. Each of them carried a plaque, dubbed the Pioneer Plaques, and that’s what this story is about.

Eric Burgess, science correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, recognized that by being the first spacecraft designed to leave our Solar System, it too would be planet Earth’s emissary to the stars. He believed the Pioneers should contain a message from its creators, one that could serve as an introduction and greeting from any being that might make contact with the Pioneers thousands or millions or more years from now. This thought spawned the idea for what became the Pioneer plaques. Burgess approached Carl Sagan, who was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, working in connection with the Mariner 9 program. Sagan was thrilled with the idea and agreed to promote the idea with NASA officials.

Two identical plaques were made–one for Pioneer 10 and one for Pioneer 11. They are 9 inches by 6 inches, .05 inches thick, and constructed of gold-anodized aluminum. They were constructed and engraved by Precision Engravers of California, a company that is still in business today and sells replica plaques. The design itself was created by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, with the artistic help of Sagan’s then-wife Linda Salzman Sagan. NASA accepted the idea and their design, and received approval to have them flown aboard Pioneer 10 and 11. They would be attached to the craft’s antenna supports, positioned such that they would be protected from erosion caused by interstellar dust.

The design consists of a few different elements symbolizing humanity’s place within the galaxy, and information about our species.

The Pioneer Plaque

Beginning in the top-left is a schematic representing the hyperfine transition of  neutral hydrogen.Hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen extracted from the Pioneer plaque

Wait! Don’t go! Give me a chance to try and unpack that gobbledygook for you. 

This piece of the plaque is actually kind of important, because it serves as a reference for the other elements of the plaque. For this explanation, consider that the electrons in atoms exist in one of two states: spin up and spin down. Hydrogen was chosen for the diagram due to it being the most abundant element in the Universe as well as one of the simplest, containing a single electron. Basically, the magnetic field of an electron can either be oriented parallel to the magnetic field of the atom’s nucleus, or it can be oriented in the opposite direction. These are the two states I referred to. The diagram shows both of these phases connected by a line that represents the transition–a hyperfine transition I might add–between these two states. When this occurs, a photon is emitted with a specific wavelength of about 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz. A being that might one day come into contact with the plaque would hopefully understand the distance and frequency represented, for if they could they would then be able to use it as a reference for the other diagrams on the plaque.

Like, for example, the diagram of us.

Depiction of humans on the Pioneer plaque


Here, the plaque depicts a nude male and female human. To the right of the woman figure are hash marks indicating the top and bottom of her height. Between those marks is the symbol “| – – -“, which is the binary symbol for 8. The woman is 8 tall. 8 what, you’re asking? 8 feet? 8 inches? Remember when we created our scale using the hydrogen transition thingamajig, and came up with 21 centimeters? That’s right, the woman is 8 x 21 cm, which equals 168 cm (just a skosh over 5′ 6”). Make sense?

There have been claims made that the original drawing had the man and woman holding hands, but that a conscious decision was made to separate the two out of concern that an alien gazing upon the plaque would think of the two humans as a single being. There are also rumors that the original design included a more anatomically-correct woman body, but that single extra line needed to be erased to garner top NASA official authorization.

What a wonderful time to have been around JPL for those discussions. There’s a lot we can learn about ourselves within a debate on how to present ourselves to alien beings thousands or millions of years into the future.

Moving on…

Silhouette of the Pioneer spacecraft relative to the size of the humans.Behind us (the humans), there’s a silhouette of the Pioneer spacecraft, showing the relative size of humans to the craft. I guess this is there in case the aliens are too lazy to do the hydrogen transition conversion thing we just talked about.

At the bottom of the plaque, we have a depiction of our solar system and where Pioneer came from. Also, more hash marks. I hope the aliens realize that this time they’re supposed to be multiplying by 1/10th of the distance of Mercury’s orbit from the Sun, and not 21 cm like they were to do with the human models. If not, they’ll have a hard time finding us if they’re looking for tiny planets that have orbits mere hundreds of centimeters from their star. I really hope aliens enjoy puzzles.


The Solar System with the trajectory of the Pioneer spacecraft.


I also hope that by the time they see this part of the plaque that word hasn’t gotten to them about Pluto being downgraded to dwarf planet….

But ours is only one of millions of solar systems within our corner of the galaxy. Providing a map of our solar system won’t help them if they have no way to find it to begin with. That brings us to the next part of the plaque:


This schematic shows the location of Sol (our sun) relative to the center of the Milky Way and 14 pulsars. I’m going to spare you the technical details and give you the bare bones version. The length of the lines indicate the relative distance between the Sun and the various pulsars. The long binary numbers give the periods of the pulsars, basically their signature. One thing worth noting about the periods of the pulsars, is that their frequency will change over time. Knowing this, a being deciphering this part of the plaque would be able to not only figure out where in the galaxy the Pioneers originated from, but also when they left Earth. Depending on where the plaque is encountered, only some of the pulsars might be visible thus the redundancy of including 14. This should be enough to allow for triangulation back to us. There’s a 15th line coming out of the center of the figure (which, if you haven’t guessed already is where the Sun is located); it’s the long one pointing to the right. It shows the relative distance from the Sun to the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

So there you have it. The Pioneer Plaque: a representation of humans and their size, a celestial map to the place and time the craft and its plaque originated from, and a tool to use as a standard unit of measure to decode all of the details.

If only we put so much effort into the selfies we post of ourselves on Facebook.

NASA's State of the Solar System

Here’s an excellent infographic that details NASA’s current Solar System (and beyond!) spacecraft missions. It lists every craft NASA out exploring various bodies and their current status.

Click the image to make it a little bigger.

State of the Solar System infographic

State of the Solar System infographic



New Horizons Awakens

If everything has gone according to its meticulous plan, by the time you are reading this NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have awoken from its electronic hibernation for the last time and begun its careful preparations to encounter Pluto in July of 2015.

Maybe I should back up for those that aren’t familiar with New Horizons, or just want a little recap:

New Horizons is the name of a NASA spacecraft and mission to complete a fly-by mission of Pluto and its moons, and then on to view other Kuiper-Belt objects. New Horizons will give us shiny new photos of our favorite dwarf planet and a wealth of other scientific data. It’s about time, too. I mean, just look at the current best image we have of what we–at least  used to–consider 1/9th of our solar system’s planetary awesomeness:

Pluto as imaged by Hubble in 2010.

Pluto as imaged by Hubble in 2010.

Yuck! And NASA was impressed enough to brag about these “most detailed and dramatic images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet“. I’m looking forward to which adjectives they’ll use when we get real images courtesy of New Horizons. But I digress.

On January 19, 2006, New Horizons lifted-off from its Cape Canaveral launchpad and screamed into the heavens. In fact, nothing before or since has left the Earth with such a sense of urgency. New Horizons holds the record for the fastest launch of any spacecraft. It left the Earth with a velocity of 36,373 miles per hour (58,356 kilometers/hour), fast enough to propel it not just out of the Earth’s orbit, but completely out of the solar system (referred to as a solar escape velocity).

Subsequently, New Horizons continued to voyage towards its 2015 encounter with Pluto. Along the way, it came within 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) of Jupiter, on February 28, 2007, and actually used its proximity to gain a gravity assist boost from the massive gas giant. This gave New Horizons a speed boost of about 9,000 miles per hour (14,000 kilometers/hour). Taking advantage of that graviational slingshot, the voyage to Pluto was shortened by three full years. Score! Free energy!

New Horizons zoomed along, passing Saturn’s orbit in June of 2008, Uranus’s in March of 2011, and then Neptune’s in August of this year.

Next up: Pluto.

Throughout its journey, New Horizons has gone through hibernation/wake cycles more than a dozen times, in fact, spending about 2/3 of its time in an electronic slumber. During hibernation, most of the craft’s systems are powered down or entered into an extremely low-functioning state. This “reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions”.  Today, however, New Horizons is waking for good.

Beginning in February, the main observation objectives begin. Around the beginning of May, New Horizons will be capturing images of Pluto exceeding the resolution that Hubble was able to produce. For the next two months, Pluto will become more accessible to all of the spacecraft’s instruments. The closest approach is projected for July 14, where New Horizons will be within 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) of Pluto. New Horizons’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is expected to capture images on the scale of 50 meters per pixel and accomplish a handful of other primary and secondary scientific objectives.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to Pluto, New Horizons will be observing and recording images and data from Pluto’s known moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx, and Kerberos.

And that’s still not all. Remember how I mentioned that New Horizons is on a solar system escape trajectory? That means the craft is going to continue hurtling away from the Earth and Sun, away from Pluto, and out beyond the ends of our solar system and into intergalactic space. Included in the craft and mission design, is fly-by opportunities for one ore more Kuipier-Belt Objects (KBOs), the residents of the Kuiper Belt. If you’re not familiar with the Kuiper Belt, think asteroid belt except much larger but instead of rocky asteroids, these bodies consist more of frozen gases such as methane, ammonia, and water. (Some of the moons of our solar system are believed to be former residents of the Kuiper Belt, but that’s another story for another time.) The ability to complete this mission will depend on targetable candidates and remaining fuel supplies.

After all of this, New Horizons slips into the furthest reaches of the Sun’s influence, the fascinating realm known as the outer heliosphere, including the heliosheath and heliopause (again, another story/another time). If the craft is still alive at this point, New Horizons will continue the work of the Voyagers in mapping this interesting environment.

That’s it for today. Stay tuned for updates on this historical mission, and much, much more!



But that’s not all that will reawaken on December 6th.


Alien Footprints

Ever wondered about the track’s humanity has left on other worlds? If so, you’ll probably appreciate this infographic from Karl Tate and Space.com.

View the list of extraterrestrial vehicles and distances traveled on other worlds.

Source Space.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

It’s a fairly intuitive image, so there’s not a lot I need to say. I’m jealous of the miles of tracks that were laid down by the Apollo astronauts in their moon buggies. Could you imagine?

I hope to live long enough to see just as many human-driven miles on Mars.