Saturday, January 07, 2006

2006: A busy year in space

2006 looks set to be a busy year for arrivals and departures in the solar system.

















One of the first space events of the year, will be the dramatic re-entry of NASA's Stardust capsule through the Earth's atmosphere. During its six-year journey, it collected particles from Comet Wild 2.
On 15 January, it is expected to parachute onto the Utah desert, the same area where another sample-return mission, Genesis, crashed into the ground after its parachute failed to deploy in 2004.
Then on 17 January, NASA is preparing to send its New Horizons probe to Pluto, the only planet in the solar system not yet explored by a robotic mission.

New arrival

Another planet, Mars, will receive a new visitor on 10 March, when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is due to enter orbit. It will spend the following six months looping around the planet in an elliptical orbit - passing very close to the planet and then zooming away to high altitude. But it will gradually adjust the orbit to a more circular shape. The science phase of the mission is scheduled to begin in November.
Two planets away, the European Space Agency's Venus Express spacecraft will begin orbiting its target on 11 April.
Asteroids will also be targeted in 2006, with NASA scheduled to launch the Dawn spacecraft no sooner than 17 November. It will explore Ceres and Vesta, two objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, that mission has experienced budget and technical problems, so the launch date remains tentative.
Our star, the Sun, will not be left out of planned space activities. On 26 May, NASA will launch the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory mission, the first pair of spacecraft devoted to making three-dimensional measurements of the Sun and solar wind.

Test flight

But space exploration will not be the exclusive preserve of robots in 2006. The shuttle Discovery is being prepared for a lift off on 3 May 2006. The date may be pushed back depending on how well engineers can understand why foam continues to fall off the shuttle's external tank during launch. During Discovery's previous mission in 2005, sizeable chunks of foam fell off despite a redesigned tank.

The next shuttle mission is still considered a test flight by NASA. It will re-supply the International Space Station and mark the return of a third resident crew member, European astronaut Thomas Reiter.

NASA could launch another shuttle as soon as July. That flight will resume construction on the station and add electricity-generating solar arrays.
The Earth's Moon is in for a surprise in 2006, as ESA's lunar explorer SMART-1 is scheduled to end its successful mission by crashing into the Moon's surface on 17 August. It entered lunar orbit in 2004 and has been busy mapping.

Formation flying

The Earth itself will also come under new scrutiny as NASA launches several Earth-observing satellites in 2006. On 28 February, three microsatellites known as Space Technology 5 are due to lift off aboard a Pegasus XL rocket. After deployment, they will fly in formation to gather information about Earth's magnetic field.

And on 29 September, NASA will launch the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft to examine "noctilucent" clouds, high-altitude clouds that shine at night.
ESA is anticipating the launch of its second Galileo test satellite, part of its global navigation network. The first satellite launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 28 December 2005.
Finally, after technical glitches scrubbed two launch attempts in late 2005, Space Exploration Technologies' new Falcon 1 rocket will aim to get off the ground in late January, or perhaps early February.

Link: http://www.newscientistspace.com/article.ns?id=dn8532

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