The Year of the Solar System
To mark an unprecedented flurry of exploration, NASA announced that this year is "The Year of the Solar System."
"During YSS, we'll see triple the (usual) number of launches, flybys and orbital insertions," says Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA headquarters. "There hasn't been anything quite like it in the history of the Space Age."
Naturally, it's a Martian year.
"These events will unfold over the next 23 months, the length of a year on the Red Planet," explains Green. "History will remember the period October 2010 through August 2012 as a golden age of planetary exploration."
The action began at the end of October 2010 with a visit to Comet Hartley 2. Later in November, NASA astrobiologists launched O/OREOS, a shoebox-sized satellite designed to test the durability of life in space. Short for "Organism/ORganic Exposure to Orbital Stresses," O/OREOS will expose a collection of organic molecules and microbes to solar and cosmic radiation. Could space be a natural habitat for these "micronauts?" O/OREOS may provide some answers. Bonus: The same rocket that delivers O/OREOS to space will carry an experimental solar sail. NanoSail-D has unfurled in Earth orbit and circled our planet for months. Occasionally, the sail has caught a sunbeam and redirected it harmlessly to the ground below where sky watchers can witness history's first "solar sail flares."
"Take a deep breath," says Green, "because that was just the first three months of YSS!"
The action continued in 2011 as Stardust NExT encountered comet Tempel 1 (Feb. 14), MESSENGER entered orbit around Mercury (March 18), and Dawn entered orbit around asteroid Vesta (May).
"For a full month, Dawn was able to see Vesta even more clearly than Hubble can," marvels Green. "The only way to top that would be to go into orbit."
And that is exactly what Dawn did in July 2011: It inserted itself into orbit for a full-year study of the second-most massive body in the asteroid belt. Although Vesta is not classified as a planet, it is a full-fledged alien world that is expected to mesmerize researchers as it reveals itself to Dawn's cameras.
Next came the launch of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter (August). Then NASA launches GRAIL to map the gravitational field of the moon (September) and sends a roving science lab named "Curiosity" to Mars (November).
"The second half of 2011 will be as busy as some entire decades of the Space Age," says Green.
Even then, YSS has months to go.
2012 opens with Mars rover Opportunity running the first-ever Martian marathon. The dogged rover is trundling toward the heart of Endeavour Crater, a city-sized impact basin almost two dozen miles from Opportunity's original landing site.
"Opportunity is already under the influence of the crater," says Green. "The ground beneath the rover's wheels is sloping gently down toward its destination -- a welcome feeling for any marathoner."
In August 2011, Opportunity reached the crater Endeavour's lip and looked over the edge deeper into the heart of Mars than any previous robotic explorer. The only thing more marvelous than the view is the rover itself. Originally designed to travel no more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), Opportunity's rest stop at Endeavour will put it just miles away from finishing the kind of epic Greek run that athletes on Earth can only dream about.
Meanwhile, halfway across the solar system, Dawn will fire up its ion engines and prepare to leave Vesta. For the first time in space history, a spacecraft orbiting one alien world will break orbit and take off for another. Dawn's next target is dwarf planet Ceres, nearly spherical, rich in water ice, and totally unexplored.
The Year of the Solar System concludes in August 2012 when Curiosity lands on Mars. The roving nuclear-powered science lab will take off across the red sands sniffing the air for methane (a possible sign of life) and sampling rocks and soil for organic molecules. Curiosity's advanced sensors and unprecedented mobility are expected to open a new chapter in exploration of the Red Planet.
"So the end," says Green, "is just the beginning. These missions will keep us busy long after YSS is history."
Discover these worlds for yourself through activities highlighting a new topic each month by visiting the YSS website at http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/yss
Adapted from: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2010/07oct_yss