Space missions – updates

2015 is an amazing year for space missions (not that 2014 has been a bad one) – plenty of them under way and expectations are high for the results they are going to deliver.

New Horizons: if 2014 has been the Year of the Comet thanks to Rosetta, 2015 is going to be the Year of Pluto – when the fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons, will perform a fly-by of the ex-ninth, now dwarf planet (maybe on its way to become a planet again) passing within 10,000 km (6,200 mi) in mid-July.


As of April 30, 2015, the spacecraft was at this position, travelling at 14.57 km/s (32,600 mph) relative to the Sun and at 13.77 km/s relative to Pluto:

  • 0.60 AU (90,000,000 km; 56,000,000 mi) from Pluto
  • 32.29 AU (4.831×109 km; 3.002×109 mi) from the Sun
  • 31.86 AU (4.766×109 km; 2.962×109 mi) from Earth.

In the meantime we have just started receiving direct imagery, with a first view of the surface features of Pluto and Charon.

As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object. (….) As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.” (NASA Press Release, 29 April 2015).


The first ever images showed Pluto’s poles. “Because Pluto is tipped on its side (like Uranus), when observing Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft, one primarily sees one pole of Pluto, which appears to be brighter than the rest of the disk in all the images. Scientists suggest this brightening in Pluto’s polar region might be caused by a “cap” of highly reflective snow on the surface. The “snow” in this case is likely to be frozen molecular nitrogen ice. New Horizons observations in July will determine definitively whether or not this hypothesis is correct.” (NASA, April, 30, 2015)


Dawn: In another space exploration’s milestone, the spacecraft Dawn, after having reached Vesta in 2011, has in March 2015 entered Ceres’ orbit, becoming the first to have orbited two extraterrestrial targets and discovering a series of surprising details, such as the brilliant white spots on the surface.

“This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history. It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our colour images.” (NASA, April, 13 2015).


(Rosetta, ESA, 1 May 2015)

Rosetta: The hero of 2014, Rosetta hangs on and keeps following  67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in its fast approach to the Sun – through its perihelion (August 2015) and until the end of the mission. Its work is not without issues – just a few weeks ago it experienced troubles due to its proximity to the comet  – but we can still expect some more discoveries from the ESA’s spacecraft. You can always track the comet (and Rosetta’s) position checking this website, or at the hashtag #LivingWithAComet.

Cassini: One of most successful (and longest) missions ever launched, after having made fundamental discoveries and sent back incredible videos, Cassini keeps delivering.

IMG005171-br500Right now the most promising results come from  its exploration of Saturn’s moons – Titan’s being the most obvious. Recent news have communicated important findings related to Enceladus and its icy tendrils. “As the supply lanes for Saturn’s E ring, the tendrils give us a way to ascertain how much mass is leaving Enceladus and making its way into Saturn orbit. (…) So, another important step is to determine how much mass is involved, and thus estimate how much longer the moon’s sub-surface ocean may last.” (NASA, April, 14 2015).


The next encounter with Titan, in the so-called T-111 Flyby, is scheduled for May 07 2015 (SCET). Cassini is now at 2,722 km (1,691 mi) and its position can be as well tracked online on its NASA page.
Finally, just two days ago, NASA’s Messanger probe, orbiting Mercury since March 2011, has sent over its last image before plunging (and crashing) into the surface of the planet. “As the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury, MESSENGER revolutionized our understanding of the solar system’s innermost planet, as well as accomplished technological firsts that made the mission possible.” (NASA, May, 2 1015)

(Credit: NASA, Messanger’s impact site)



  1. DJ Cockburn

    Reblogged this on Cockburn's Eclectics and commented:
    I’ve posted a few blogs on ongoing space missions exploration, so anyone who has found them interesting will be interested in the overview by the Earthian Hivemind:

    1. Stephen P. Bianchini

      Many thanks for the reblog.


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