Monday, January 09, 2012

3 Cool Space Missions for 2012

Image courtesy of NASA
I can trace my abiding fascination with Outer Space all the way back to a large book on the Universe, which sat on the bottom shelf of our bookcase at home. The book and I were inseparable in my formative years and  I would sit on the living room floor and pore over it for (quite literally) hours at a time. While other five year olds in my primary school class were doodling what they did on holiday, I was more interested in mapping out the Solar System in as much detail as I could muster. Yes, even as a five year old, I was a little strange.

Therefore, despite the fact that 2011 saw the demise of the Space Shuttle programme, I am pretty excited about the wide variety of space missions that are planned for the forthcoming year so figured that I would run through some of the coolest extraterrestrial happenings of 2012.

Image courtesy of Space Exploration Technologies Corp

1. Dragon rendezvous with the ISS
With the Space Shuttle programme officially mothballed, it means there is going to be a need for someone else to help with the transportation of supplies and crew to the International Space Station. Step forward, Space Exploration Technologies (or Space X) whose Dragon spacecraft was the first commercial launch to be placed in, and recovered from, orbit last year. In February, strapped atop the Falcon 9 rocket, the Dragon will blast off from Cape Canaveral and attempt to rendezvous with the ISS, where it will deliver food, clothing and supplies. It may not seem that big a deal, but it's important to remember that only the US, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency have ever accomplished what Space X has done. It marks an important moment - we witness the beginning of the era of commercial spaceflight... [source]

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
2. Curiosity Rover arrives on Mars
Three rovers have successfully explored areas of Mars, but Curiosity is a far bigger deal - quite literally, as it is five times larger than any previous rover and is approximately the same size as a Mini Cooper. Curiosity is stuffed with scientific equipment that ranges from cameras to x-ray spectrometers and is scheduled to explore a wide swathe of Mars for an entire Martian year (or 687 of your Earthling days). Of course, all of that hangs on Curiosity actually reaching Mars intact as the landing system is one of the most advanced (or ridiculously overcomplicated, dependent upon your viewpoint) NASA has ever attempted, as illustrated in the video below:

All being well though, Curiosity should be capable of delivering us a wealth of new information on the Red Planet... [source]

Artists rendition of LightSail-1 by Rick Sternbach. Credit: Planetary Society
3. LightSail-1 Launches
Developed by the Planetary Society, a non-profit organisation founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friendman that promotes space exploration, LightSail-1 is an attempt to prove the validity of Solar Sail technology. The theory is that the impact of photons from the Sun on the Sail will serve to propel LightSail-1 away from the Earth at a continuous accelerating rate; proving the technology works could be the first step towards using Solar Sail technology to make travel for probes within our Solar System both cheaper and faster. I have mixed feelings about the LightSail project; on the one hand it is disappointing that this technology is not being trialled by a government with real resources to throw at it, on the other it is simply remarkable that we are living in a day and age where non-profit organisations - through donations - can design, build and oversee the launch of space missions... [source]

And that's not all that's happening in Space in 2012, some other highlights include NASA's GRAIL probes entering the Moon's orbit to begin a three month mission to use gravity field mapping to chart the Moon's interior structure and China making its first attempt at manning the Tiangong 1 module that is serving as a testbed for a larger, module-based spacestation. Plus, more than 10.5 billion miles away in the dim reaches of the Solar System, Voyager 1 continues to plough its lonely interstellar furrow in a year that may possibly see it become the first man-made object to reach interstellar space...

No comments: