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March 12, 2012
Scientific Discoveries of Mercury, Saturn Highlight Conference

HOUSTON – NASA missions aiming to increase knowledge of our solar system and planning for future deep space missions will highlight the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference March 19 to 23. The conference, open to media, will be held at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in The Woodlands, Texas.

Conference presentations will cover discoveries and near-term plans of Dawn's asteroid mission; firsthand access to new results from MESSENGER's first year in orbit around Mercury; analyses of scientific data returned from Cassini's exploration of the Saturn system; and a session on hydrological processes active on Earth, Mars and Saturn's moon Titan.

"Scientists attending this conference present and discuss results of research pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the processes, events and bodies that form our solar system," said Eileen Stansbery, director of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

News media briefings on March 21 include members of the Dawn science team at 11:30 a.m. CDT and MESSENGER results at 12:30 p.m.

Dawn, part of NASA's Discovery Program of missions, was launched in 2007 to orbit the large asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn has been orbiting Vesta since July 2011 and mapping its surface. Vesta is one of three extraterrestrial bodies from which we have known samples. A session on Dawn will include a broad range of investigations into rock and mineral compositions cratering history and geologic formations.

The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) space probe is a robotic NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. The spacecraft was launched in August 2004 to study Mercury's chemical composition, geology and magnetic field. At the time of the conference, MESSENGER will have completed its primary orbital mission at Mercury, and the MESSENGER Extended Mission will have just begun. One session will cover new findings from a year of imaging Mercury's surface.

A joint endeavor of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, Cassini arrived at Saturn in June 2004. The mission is an intensive study of Saturn's rings, its moons and magnetosphere. Cassini released the Huygens probe toward Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and the probe landed on the moon's surface in January 2005. After more than seven years of close study, the Cassini spacecraft still unveils new scientific discoveries.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of nuclear-powered space probes, which began with launch of the Transit 4A satellite in June 1961. Nuclear power has been an enabling technology for the most ambitious planetary missions in history.

In honor of this occasion, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference will be held in conjunction with the Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS) meeting scheduled for March 21 to 23. The gatherings, including a joint plenary session on March 21, allow the planetary science community to learn more about the latest developments in nuclear power and propulsion.

"Holding our conference in conjunction with the NETS meeting in celebration of 50 years of nuclear-powered spaceflight provides an opportunity for scientists and engineers to get together in discussing the needs, capabilities and opportunities for the future of deep space exploration," added Stansbery.

The conference is presented by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). LPI is managed by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), a national, nonprofit consortium of universities chartered in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of NASA. USRA operates programs and institutes focused on research and education in most of the disciplines engaged in space-related science and engineering. Institutional membership in USRA now stands at 105 leading research universities.

For more information about the conference including media registration, links to the program, media advisories and contact information, visit:


For more information about LPI, visit:


For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:


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William Jeffs
Johnson Space Center, Houston

Kécia Mallette
Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston

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