Since the beginning of the Space Age, man has sent many manned and unmanned missions into space. Very powerful telescopes, built around the world, broaden our vision and understanding of the universe. Spacecraft, whether visiting other worlds or orbiting the Earth send us images and data collected from our outer atmosphere to the outer planets and beyond.
However, all this was only possible thanks to the incredibly rapid development of technology in recent years. Only then, could the essential resources for the construction of the current generation of spaceships be developed.
So, let us talk a little about some of the most important of space exploration’s tools and its greatest discoveries in this series, called Astronomy Tech.
In this first post, let’s get to know Cassini-Huygens a bit better. It is a joint mission between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ISA), which has uncovering the secrets of Saturn, including its rings and moons, as its primary objective.
On October 15th, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft – composed of NASA’s Cassini orbiter and the ESA’s Huygens probe – was launched, beginning a long and complex seven-year journey, including gravitational slingshot manoeuvres around Venus, Earth and Jupiter. After arriving at its destination, the mother ship; Cassini, began its main objective exploring Saturn, whilst the Huygens probe was lunched and landed on Titan –Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.
The spacecraft’s name was a tribute to the Italian Jean-Dominique Cassini (1625-1712) – discover of the Saturnine satellites Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. In 1675 he discovered what is known today as the ‘Cassini Division’, the narrow gap separating Saturn’s A and B rings. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) was a Dutch scientist who first described Saturn’s rings and, in 1655 he discovered the moon Titan.
The Cassini spacecraft has a set of 12 instruments on-board. Some of them work in similar ways to our own. However, the instruments on the Cassini spacecraft are much more advanced than our own.
Cassini can “see” in wavelengths of light that the human eye cannot. The instruments on the spacecraft can “feel” things about magnetic fields and tiny dust particles that no human hand could detect. This means that Cassini can, for example ‘see the temperature’ of the objects it observes.
The magnetic field and particle detectors take direct sensing measurements of the environment around the spacecraft. These instruments measure magnetic fields, mass, electrical charges and densities of atomic particles. They also measure the quantity and composition of dust particles, the saturation of plasma (electrically charged gases), and radio waves.
Exploring the Ringed Planet
The expected return to Saturn – which hadn’t been visited by any spacecraft since Voyager 2 left Saturn’s orbit in 1981, – happened in July 2004. Since then, Cassini has made great discoveries about the Saturnine System and taken some terrific pictures, like the one below.
A few days after reaching Saturn, Cassini released the Huygens probe to land on Titan. On January 14, 2005, during its fall, six instruments analysed Titan’s atmosphere. According to the returned data, Titan has a nitrogen rich atmosphere. It also confirmed that Titan’s orange colour is due to the presence of hydrocarbons, formed when sunlight breaks down the abundant methane molecules within the atmosphere.
These results have given scientists a glimpse of what Earth might have been like before life evolved. They now believe Titan possesses many similarities to the Earth, including lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, snow, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes.
Isn’t over yet; every day, it sends us vast amounts of data back to astronomers allowing them to resolve and answer questions about Saturn and our own planet.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity has successfully completed the largest course correction planed for its journey to the Red Planet.
Over the course of three hours yesterday, the spacecraft’s thrusters were used to slightly alter the course of the probe ensuring it reaches Mars at the correct time for successful landing at the Gale Crater. Thanks to this course alteration, the craft is on target to reach Mars on the sixth of August this year.
The manoeuvre also corrects the inbuilt inaccuracy in the launch trajectory that ensures the upper stage of the launch vehicle does not impact Mars.
This is necessary as the upper stage was not subjected to the rigorous cleaning regime the probe itself was subjected to, and as such it may be carrying microorganisms from Earth that could contaminate Mars’ environment.
You can read more here.
The news on Phobos-Grunt’s situation is not at all good I’m afraid.
The spacecraft malfunctioned after its launch on November the 8th. Its engines failed to ignite, stranding the probe in a somewhat unstable Earth orbit. Communication attempts with the probe have largely failed with only a few isolated contacts via the ESA’s tracking stations.
Attempts to reprogram the probes software in an effort to correct the issue have also failed.
Yesterday the ESA announced that their efforts to contact the stricken probe have been suspended. They did add that if the situation changes they will be more than happy to render assistance, though at the moment the horizon is looking bleak.
The window for reaching Phobos has already closed, though if the probe is salvaged it may be re purposed for a mission to an asteroid or comet. If not the probe will fall out of orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere perhaps as early as mid-January, sending years of time, effort and $165 million up in smoke, not something anybody would like to see happening.
Not all hope has been lost for Phobos-Grunt but the light is fading fast …
This is a post by VanessaG for the Young Astronomers
Another Historic day for China performing their first unmanned docking with Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou 8 on Tuesday (Nov 2). This was the first docking ever performed by the nation and was hailed as a “complete sucesss” by the leaders of the mission.
Tiangong-1 has been in orbit for a month now and Shenzhou was only launched last Monday on board CZ-2F from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Tiangong-1 slowed to an orbit of 7.8Km/s to allow for the docking over China.
The docking inspired love poems based on the folklore story of the story of the cowherd and the weaver girl who are puinished by the Goddess of heaven and can only meet in the sky once a year by crossing a bridge formed by magpies, mythology and folklore expert An Deming told Xinhua, a state-owned news agency.
“Tiangong, my lover, for the arrival of this moment — wait for me. I’m coming,” reads a poem called “Lovers’ Talk,” published in Tianfu Zaobao, a Sichuan-based daily.
The two will stay ‘kissing’ for 8 days then separate. Shenzhou will return 2 days after that and the results of the onboard experiments from China and Germany can be analysed.
China will be launching two more missions to Tiangong next year, Shenzhou 9 &10. It has been confirmed that at least one of these will be manned and may contain the country’s first female taikinaut.
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