Two upcoming spacecraft encounters

By Phil Plait | June 2, 2010 12:08 pm

We humans have been busy lately… there are a lot of spacecraft buzzing around the solar system. Sure, you’ve heard of Cassini, and the Mars probes, but there are two very interesting spacecraft making two very interesting encounters in the next few weeks.

epoxi1) On June 27, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft — which sent a chunk of copper smashing into a comet back in 2005, and which has now been repurposed for planetary science — will swing by the Earth, using our planet’s gravity to change its direction and speed. DI will pass at a distance of just 37,000 km (23,000 miles)! That’s around the same height above the surface as geosynchronous (i.e. weather and communication) satellites. This maneuver will send the little spacecraft on its way to an encounter with the comet Hartley 2 in November.

rosetta2) The European Space Agency’s amazing Rosetta spacecraft will fly by the asteroid 21 Lutetia on July 10. The asteroid is about 95 km across (60 miles), and the flyby distance will be about 3200 km (2000 miles). That’s pretty close, certainly near enough to provide some nice images of the rock. In 2008, Rosetta passed the smaller asteroid 2867 Steins and returned nice images, and in 2009 swung by the Earth, sending back an image so heart-achingly beautiful I chose it as one of my Top Ten images of the year.

Rosetta’s primary mission is taking it to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will drop an actual honest-to-FSM lander on the comet’s surface! This is a tremendously exciting mission, and I can’t wait to see what new wonders it will send us.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Emily Lakdawalla for the Rosetta news.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space

Comments (20)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Don’t forget Hayabusa landing at Woomera, South Oz – or at least its sample return capsule and the launch of SpaceX’s Dragon scheduled for June 2nd /3rd 4th (now -thanks chabo yax ) last time I looked assuming that’s not delayed (yet) again. Thanks for keeping us updated BA I’ll mark those on the calander & am already looking forward to them. :-)

    PS. Did you get my email & facebook messages with links to recent news on Venus & about supermassive black holes by any chance Dr Plait? I imagine you’ve probably already heard, likely formlots of people but I sent them just in case & am never quite sure if you’re recieving the messages I’ve sent you or not. I understand you’re busy & probably have a million & one such emails but I would like to know whether they’re getting though occassionally.

  2. Slightly OT, but speaking of spacecraft, this weekend I was off camping and took a little bit of time to star-gaze. In the span of about 30 minutes, I saw 6 satellites and a shooting star. I probably could have seen more, but there was still some significant ambient light obscuring the view.

    I also saw a bunch of (non-Whedon) fireflies that, when I was focusing on the stars, appeared at first to be shooting stars, until viewed directly.

  3. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Todd W.:

    [T]his weekend I was off camping and took a little bit of time to star-gaze. In the span of about 30 minutes, I saw 6 satellites and a shooting star. I probably could have seen more, but there was still some significant ambient light obscuring the view.

    Yeah, that’s the trouble with camping in your back yard. ;-)

  4. @IVAN3MAN

    Ah, if only my backyard were even close to as nice and relaxing as the camp site. On the other hand, if it were more like the camp site, I would be woken up around 3 or 4 every morning by lots and lots of birds. I’d be a very tired individual.

  5. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @ Todd W.,

    Mockingbirds, no doubt?

  6. DaveS

    I can see the headline: “NASA’s “Deep Impact” Aimed at Earth!”

  7. has now been repurposed for planetary science

    So do they actually know when they send up these spacecraft that they will be doing multiple duties, and what those various missions will be?
    Or do they design them for multiple functions but allow for the flexibility of deciding later what to use them for?

  8. @IVAN3MAN

    Mockingbirds, no doubt?

    No, no. Those hang out around the houses of EU/PC proponents (among others).

  9. RobinS

    @Messier Tidy Upper: the upcoming SpaceX launch is of Falcon, not Dragon. Dragon will be the crew transport capsule, and that will happen much later. There is a Dragon dummy on top, but that’s just for test purposes, instrumentation, simulating a real Dragon, and etc.

    @Non-Believer: both. Sometimes probes go up with secondary missions already planned, and sometimes secondary or tertiary missions are added as opportunities present.

    We’ve sure been getting our money’s worth and more out of our latest generation(s) of probes. NASA really needs to be selling these successes to the public to generate more public support for NASA and science in general. Likewise it’d be nice to see more collaboration between the various international space agencies: NASA, ESA, JAXA, KARI, et al. There’s a lot of working knowledge that together could do some even more amazing things.

  10. Ohio Mike

    Again, I have to thank BA: “honest-to-FSM” has now entered my lexicon!

  11. MadScientist

    In Ratchet and Clank’s latest adventure there are missions where Ratchet has to grapple the core of some comets … I’ll just imagine a furry little Lombax flying the Rosetta spacecraft.

    That’s pretty neat how the Deep Impact craft can still be maneuvered to do other jobs; they obviously have enough propellant still on board. If only Pioneer or Voyager 2 had enough propellant on board to put them into orbit around one of the gas giants …

    @RobinS#9: Working more with other space agencies is much easier said than done, but we are getting more earth observation birds with instruments from various agencies.

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. RobinS Says:

    @Messier Tidy Upper: the upcoming SpaceX launch is of Falcon, not Dragon. Dragon will be the crew transport capsule, and that will happen much later. There is a Dragon dummy on top, but that’s just for test purposes, instrumentation, simulating a real Dragon, and etc.

    Okay thanks for that.

    Oddly enough, Hayabusa means “falcon” in Japanese too so we’ve got two “Falcon” events to look forward to this month – on the 13th for the JAXA asteroid mission & on the 4th for the SpaceX rocket launch.

  13. llewelly

    So – I have question. If Hayabusa lands ok, won’t that be the first successful sample return of a space mission since Apollo 17?

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ llewelly ^ :

    No, we’ve already had samples of the Sun returned by Genesis on September 8, 2004 – which crash landed but material was still recovered – and from comet Wild 2 by Stardust on January 15, 2006 which didn’t crash land … But Hayabusa’s success will still be pretty durn cool! :-)

  15. SlackTide

    Is any kind of fly-by anomaly predicted for the Deep Impact encounter? IIRC, the last spacecraft to fly by earth showed no such anomaly. I’m curious what the status of the fly-by anomaly is: has it been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction or could it still potentially be new physics?

  16. Ken (a different Ken)

    @13 llewelly: As I understand it, one of the many problems that plagued Hayabusa was the failure of the sample collection mechanism. They are hoping that some residue made it into the capsule, but hopes are not high (see the contemporary article on spaceflightnow dot com).

  17. JohnW

    Rosetta’s primary mission is taking it to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will drop an actual honest-to-FSM lander on the comet’s surface! This is a tremendously exciting mission, and I can’t wait to see what new wonders it will send us.

    When?!!!!

  18. llewelly

    Messier Tidy Upper Says:
    June 3rd, 2010 at 10:12 am :

    No, we’ve already had samples of the Sun returned by Genesis on September 8, 2004 – which crash landed but material was still recovered

    Yeah, I knew about that one, but don’t consider it “successful”, because most of the samples were lost, and those that weren’t were contaminated. Thank you for the bit about Stardust, which I had forgot.

    Ken (a different Ken) Says:
    June 3rd, 2010 at 10:50 am:

    @13 llewelly: As I understand it, one of the many problems that plagued Hayabusa was the failure of the sample collection mechanism. They are hoping that some residue made it into the capsule, but hopes are not high (see the contemporary article on spaceflightnow dot com).

    Thank you, I didn’t know this. This means I won’t be counting Hayabusa as successful sample return.

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ llewelly : Well maybe wait until we know for sure – the odds may be against Hayabusa having obtained samples but the long shot may yet pay off! ;-)

    Also, I think you’re being a bit harsh on Genesis there. It did recover material some of which – I’m pretty sure – has been successfully recovered and studied. The crash landing was a bit unfortunate but I’d still say it was a successful mission myself.

    @17. JohnW Says:

    When?!!!!

    According to the Rosetta FAQ page :

    The Rosetta lander will touch down on the comet’s surface in November 2014. The science observations will start immediately. During the first 65 hours– the minimum mission target – a first run of the most important scientific measurements will be completed. During this phase the lander can operate on battery power, should this be necessary. In a second phase that is meant to last up to three months, a secondary set of observations will be conducted, using the remaining battery power and the energy from the solar cells on the lander. However, no one knows precisely how long the lander will survive on the comet.

    So I’m afraid we’ve got a very lo-ong wait of nearly five years for it – almost as long as for NewHorizons getting to Pluto & Dawn getting to Ceres and Vesta.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :

    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Rosetta/SEMHBK2PGQD_0.html

    for more on the Rosetta mission and my source for the info. above.

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