Explorations in 2009

January 14

The Stardust spacecraft got a gravitational “kick” when it flew past Earth. After gathering particles from Comet Wild 2, the craft was retargeted to fly past Comet Tempel 1 in 2011, and the Earth encounter will give it enough extra energy to rendezvous with the comet. Another spacecraft slammed an instrumented probe into Tempel 1 in 2005, so the follow-up observations will look into the crater gouged by the impact.

February 18

The Dawn spacecraft scanned Mars as it flew past the planet. Dawn used Mars’ gravity to give it an extra “kick” to the asteroid Vesta. It will enter orbit around Vesta in August 2011, spend a few months studying it, then proceed to Ceres, the largest asteroid.

March 4

NASA launched Kepler, an orbiting observatory that will search for Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits in other star systems. Its telescope will monitor thousands of stars, searching for tiny dips in their light as planets pass in front of them.

June 2

NASA plans to launch twin Moon missions, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). LRO will photograph the lunar surface, use a laser altimeter to map its contours, and “sniff” for water ice inside craters at the poles. LCROSS will slam into one of those craters to try to blast some of the ice into space, making it easier for LRO and ground-based telescopes to detect it.

September 29

The Messenger spacecraft will fly past Mercury for the third and final time. The craft will skim to within 125 miles (200 km) of the planet’s surface, observing areas first photographed by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in the 1970s. Messenger will return to Mercury in 2011, but instead of flying past, it will enter orbit around the Sun’s closest planet.

November 2

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) is scheduled for launch. A small infrared telescope will snap a picture of a small region of the sky every 11 seconds. Over six months, this will produce a map of the entire infrared sky, with more than 1.5 million pictures. WISE will search for cool, nearby stars, study giant galaxies, and examine both our own solar system and planetary systems around other stars.

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