Dawn over Vesta

Today’s APOD (Astronomy picture of the day) is of Vesta, a rocky asteroid named after the Roman goddess of home and hearth. Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in our solar system, but the first to be visited by the Dawn spacecraft which finally arrived there in July after launch in 2007 under power of its three xenon ion thrusters.
Yes, I said Ion Thrusters.

Star Trek fans will recognize this as “ion drive” and won’t confuse it with “ion propulsion” a more highly advanced technology not developed until sometime after 2268. NASA was clearly not aware of this semantic difference, but according to their otherwise very informative page, ion thrusters have demonstrated fuel efficiencies of over 90 percent compared to chemical engines which are around 30% efficient. Dawn is the first long range spacecraft to use this technology, (some satellites use it to maintain orbit). It will remain in orbit around the rocky world for most of a year and then will continue on to study the slightly larger dwarf planet, Ceres.

Another view of Vesta from about 3,200 miles distant.

Space news

Lots of cool stuff going on in the skies this week. There’s a new red spot on Jupiter indicating the previously white storm clouds have begun to spun higher in the Jupiter atmosphere to heights near to that of the great red spot. The great red spot has been the defining feature of Jupiter since I was a kid, the fact that it’s now been joined by another huge red spot is a reminder that our solar system is not static. In other news, the Phoenix lander is scheduled to make it’s attempted landing at the north pole of Mars tommorow at 7:53pm. Since about half of the missions sent to Mars have failed, there are a lot of scientists holding their breath right about now. It’s certainly exciting, and landing in this northern region of Mars where there is a lot of ice may help to finally answer the big question – did Mars ever harbor life? Might it yet?
Continue reading “Space news”

181 things to do on the moon

According to GW (in 2004), NASA’s new strategy is to make it back to the moon by 2020. We’re supposed to build a moon base, and then… on to Mars. For those of us who grew up on Star Trek, we were really excited at the prospect of a return to space, but frankly we were expecting warp drive by now. But what to do when we get there? NASA has worked up a nice to-do list numbering 181 possibilties. At the top of their list (and mine) is a potential radio telescope built into a crater on the far side shielded from Earth’s radio noise. I’ve taken a look through half of their huge PDF file and picked out some other favorites:

Continue reading “181 things to do on the moon”