Summer Space Missions

By Riddle, Bob | Science Scope, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Summer Space Missions


Riddle, Bob, Science Scope


This summer, while we prepare for the next school year, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Curiosity, will be in its final few months of interplanetary travel to Mars. Scheduled for landing on August 6, the spacecraft will be traveling at a speed of around 12,000 km/h (7,500 mph) and will be nearing the conclusion of the cruise phase of the mission. Toward the end of June, 45 days prior to arrival at Mars, and at a distance of around 13,000,000 km (8,077,825 miles), the approach phase will begin as mission controllers prepare the spacecraft for atmosphere entry and landing. By August 6, the spacecraft will be 0 km from Mars and will have slowed from interplanetary speeds to 0 following a successful landing in Gale Crater on Mars.

During these final months of space flight, the progress of the MSL can be followed with the use of online solar system simulators. NASA's Eyes on the Solar System, a 3-D solar system simulation, shows an interactive display of the solar system and several spacecraft at their respective locations. You can zoom in to closer views of planets and many moons and even lock onto an object and follow it along its orbital path. The relative speeds of objects and even distances between objects can be determined with some of the program's tools. The relative positions of Earth, Mars, and the MSL spacecraft can be modeled, and dragging the screen display around will allow for views of the spacecraft and other objects in the solar system. Adjusting the date setting can animate the entire flight from Earth to Mars.

As the MSL spacecraft closes in on Mars, what do you suppose the red planet would look like from that perspective, as if one were a passenger onboard? Another NASA website, the Solar System Simulator, is designed to show a variety of views, including Mars as seen from the spacecraft. On this website, the images are accurate graphic depictions of the object and are static, not animated. You may choose the object from which you wish to view, as well as what to view, and can see anything from above or below views of the solar system to how planets or moons appear from each other, as well as the view from selected spacecraft. The last can extend out as far as the Voyager spacecraft on the fringes of the solar system to the MSL currently between Earth and Mars.

Once the objects have been selected and the date and time set, the field of view is then established. This determines how much space to show and ranges from a wide angle of 120[degrees] to an extremely narrow 0.0001[degrees]. The image is then displayed and includes information showing the distance to the object and its apparent size. When the program starts, select "Show me Mars as seen from Mars Science Laboratory" from the drop-down menus and a date for the simulator. Set the field of view and percentage width of the picture to determine how large the image will appear after clicking on the "Run Simulator" button. To see how the view changes, adjust the date a few days at a time until reaching August 6 to see how Mars slowly but steadily increases in size.

Unfortunately, while both of these websites can take you to Mars, neither one shows you its surface. The solution is to view a NASA animation depicting the exciting final minutes of the space flight from when the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere to its successful landing and deployment on the surface. This part of the mission is known as entry, descent, and landing (see Figure 1), and the video Next Mars Rover in Action is available on the MSL mission website (see Resources).

Be sure to set the date in your planner--August 6--when we once again land on another planet.

Dawn

This summer, while the MSL spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Mars, there is another spacecraft scheduled to depart for another planet. This is the Dawn spacecraft, which is currently in low orbit around the asteroid Vesta. Having spent this past year in the first stop of a two-world tour, the spacecraft will leave Vesta and set its course for the largest object in the asteroid belt, dwarf planet Ceres. …

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