Archive for the ‘Comets’ Category

Past, Present, and Future – Current Events in Space

Monday, December 8th, 2014

2014 was a big year for space science and exploration, and 2015 is poised to be just as exciting. Lets take a look back at some of the year’s biggest stories from NASA, ESA, other government agencies, and the private space industry, and look forward to what is coming in 2015.

Rosetta’s orbit of 67P

Rosetta and Philae

Arguably the most widely covered space mission of the year was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004 and arrived at the comet on August 6, 2014. Rosetta used four different slingshots around both Earth and Mars to build enough speed to catch up to 67P, which is traveling at about 84,000mph. In total, the spacecraft has traveled more than four billion miles in it’s ten year journey.

Philae Lander

On November 12, 2014, the lander portion of the Rosetta mission, known as Philae, landed on the surface of Comet 67P. Because the comet is relatively small (only about 2.5 miles in diameter), the gravity is not strong enough to hold objects to it. Philae was designed to use both harpoons in its feet, as well as a top-down thruster to hold it to the surface. Unfortunately, both devices failed, and Philae went skipping across the surface of the comet. This resulted in a landing location with little sunlight, rendering the craft unable to continue operating due to power shortages after about three days. 

Despite the landing troubles of Philae, the mission has been considered a monumental success, and significant scientific research is being accomplished because of the information Rosetta and Philae have gathered. Rosetta will continue to orbit Comet 67P until December 2015. During this time, the comet will make a closer approach to the Sun, which has the chance to increase the power received by Philae, to the point where it could be awoken again.


Orion Capsule and Delta IV Second Stage

Orion Exploration Flight Test

Another heavily covered space event occurred just a few days ago. The Orion spacecraft, NASA’s first spacecraft since Apollo designed to take humans beyond low Earth Orbit, was launched on it’s very first flight on December 5th. Orion was elevated to a distance of 3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface, and returned through the atmosphere at 20,000 miles an hour. This velocity was necessary to test Orion’s heat shield, which will protect astronauts on their return trip from deep space.

Orion was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket. Orion is ultimately destined to ride atop the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be tested for the first time in 2018. Orion’s ultimate goal is to transport humans to and from Mars, which NASA has projected for a mid 2030 timeframe.

Boeing’s CST-100 (left) and SpaceX’s Dragon


Commercial Crew Transportation Program

In September of 2014 NASA announced partnerships with two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, for manned transportation to the International Space Station. Since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been contracting rides to the ISS for its astronauts on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. in 2017, the United States will return to the business of human space travel with the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.


New Horizons Spacecraft

New Horizons

NASA’s New Horizons mission is currently en route to Pluto. Launched in 2006, New Horizons plans on being the first spacecraft to visit the solar system’s former ninth planet. This will give us the best pictures ever of Pluto and it’s moon, Charon. New Horizons just woke up from it’s most recent slumber, and plans on arriving at Pluto On July 14, 2015. Because of the velocity needed to get to Pluto’s orbit, New Horizons will not stop at Pluto, but instead perform a flyby on it’s way into the Kuiper belt, to study other Trans-Neptunian objects.


Dawn Spacecraft


Dawn is an unmanned spacecraft currently approaching Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, and just over one third the diameter of our Moon. Dawn was launched in September 2007, and is set to arrive in orbit around Ceres in April 2015. In 2011 Dawn also visited Vesta, a large asteroid in the asteroid belt, and will become the first spacecraft to orbit two different celestial bodies. Dawn uses a unique and experimental Ion Thruster propulsion system to allow it to enter and exit orbits efficiently. It is one of the first missions to utilize this technology, which accelerates charged particles with electromagnetic fields.

Astronomy News: Comet ISON

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Comets have dazzled stargazers since the first humans started looking to the night sky. Their bright tails streaking across the star speckled blackness of space, triggered by the solar winds and radiation of our Sun. Comets are primarily made up of ice, rock, and gas, and orbit the Sun in very oblong trajectories, often originating thousands of times further away than that of Pluto.

Hubble Space Telescope’s image of Comet ISON

Known formally as C/2012 S1, Comet ISON (So named for the project that discovered it, the International Scientific Optical Network) is a sungrazing comet that is currently on its way around the sun. ISON was discovered on September 21st 2012, and was calculated to enter the inner solar system in late November 2013. It poses no threat to Earth.

ISON may have originated from the Oort Cloud, a massive asteroid belt on the outskirts of our Solar System. It was recently calculated to have an orbital period of more than 400,000 years, which means ISON will not enter the inner solar system for that period of time. There is also a chance ISON’s orbit is so oblong that it may be flung entirely from the solar system altogether.

ISON will reach its closest point to the Sun on November 28th, 2013, at a distance of about 724,000 miles above its surface. This is less than 1.25% the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Because of this extremely close proximity, there is a chance ISON will be melted and/or ripped apart by the Sun’s extreme gravity.

If ISON manages to survive its trip around the Sun, it should be visible to the naked eye during mid December to Early January. Some media outlets have labeled this the ‘Comet of the Century’, claiming it will significantly outshine the moon. This is highly unlikely, as the comet has slowed slightly, which means it has a decreased chance of surviving the solar orbit, and its brightness will not remain as long if it does complete the orbit. Still, latest estimates put its brightness on par with that of Venus, the second brightest object currently in the night sky.

Animated version of ISON’s trajectory