Sunday, December 16, 2007

Headlines in Spaaaaaace!

Man, there have been some great astronomy stories lately. I'll start tonight in near Earth orbit, where Virgin Galactic has declared 2008 to be the "year of the spaceship." Apparently, they are celebrating/hyping the near-completion of their newest launch vehicle. Virgin Galactic is interesting because they are a non-government entity trying to give some competition for NASA in the commercial space flight "business." That will work for me if it allows NASA to concentrate on science and the programs can compliment each other by trading technology, knowhow, and so on.

Moving outward about half an astronomical unit, we look in on the little-rovers-that-could, Spirit and Opportunity. Both have now been operational for more than fifteen times their designed lifetime, and even the breakdowns are now resulting in good data. Spirit's jammed and dragging wheel has uncovered silica deposits that could indicate there was once a favorable environment for life. I'm pulling for the little rovers to survive another Martian winter, even though dust on their solar panels is slowly choking off their power source.

Meanwhile, out in Saturn orbit, the Cassini probe has been looking at the rings and come up with some data that would indicate scientists' beliefs about their relative young age could be wrong. The new data indicates that the rings could have been around for as long as the solar system. While they still believe the rings are the result of a moon-destroying collision, the timing of that collision is now in doubt. It could have been four billion years ago or more, and the rings themselves look to be a feature in the Saturnian sky indefinitely.

Finally we visit a probe that makes the others I have mentioned look like upstart kids. Yes, Voyager 2, launched in 1977 and designed to last five years, has joined its older brother Voyager 1 beyond the confines of the solar system proper. Voyager 2's data gives us more information on the shape of the boundary that marks the end of our star's influence on the galaxy (the solar wind termination shock, where the interstellar currents overpower the out rushing gas from the sun).

NASA's fact sheet on this history of the Voyagers is an awesome tale of one of NASA's greatest successes, and not just because it includes this quote: "Voyager 2 encountered Uranus on January 24, 1986..."

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