What a week for NASA. Amidst the celebration and sadness surrounding the space shuttle’s final mission - almost as if to combat the misinformation many in the general public are getting that the end of the space shuttle equals the end of American space exploration - the agency has had three huge announcements this week.
>> This morning, NASA held a briefing at the National Air & Space Museum to announce the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, to be launched this November. [Aviation Week's Senior Editor for Space Frank Morring has a report here.] Named Curiosity, the car-sized rover will target the 96 mile-wide Gale crater sitting at a very low-elevation on Mars. From this morning’s press release, “the portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.”
Take a narrated "tour" of Gale crater with this fantastic video by JPL.
>> Meanwhile, one spacecraft mission has just begun its exploration of a new world. After a nearly four year trek out to our nearest asteroid belt, the Dawn spacecraft successfully entered into orbit around its target, Vesta, early last Saturday morning. We wrote about Dawn’s mission last month as it was on approach. It will spend a year studying Vesta before moving on to fellow belt member, the dwarf planet Ceres.
Images from Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 showing a new moon around Pluto, designated P4. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI institute)
>> Speaking of dwarf planets, the Hubble Space Telescope has observed a new member of the special-to-us dwarf planet Pluto’s family. We knew about three of Pluto’s moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra, and now add tiny 8-21 mile diameter ‘P4’ to the list. By comparison, Charon is 648 miles wide, while Nix and Hydra are both 20 to 70 miles wide. This is a particularly good time for Hubble to have found this impossibly tiny new moon, as the New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to visit the system but still has about four years until its fly-by, giving scientists enough time to prepare for new observations. There have been many fantastic eulogies for the space shuttle program over the past week, but be sure to swing by The Atlantic's always spectacular In Focus photo gallery welcoming Atlantis home for the final time.