Courtesy Public domainIf you’re like me, you’re fretting about what to buy your significant other this coming holiday season. Let it go. We have bigger problems. There’s a humongous star in the constellation Canis Major that’s in its final death throes and could go supernova at any time. VY Canis Majoris, as it is referenced, is the largest star known to science, and is so huge, if it were placed in the center of our Solar System, it would encompass all the space between our Sun and the orbit of the planet Saturn (see diagram). But don’t worry, the unstable red hypergiant is nearly 5000 light-years away, and is being monitored closely (in far-infrared and submillimeter portions of the light spectrum) by the European Space Agency's new space telescope Herschel. Read more here about what's actually going on.
Google Sky now works in a web browser (without a download). From within a web browser one can navigate the sky in a way similar to using Google Maps. Zoom or drag your way through a universe of stitched together images from telescopes and satellites. Try it out. It is lots of fun.
Have you seen the trailer for the new Transformers movie? It has the story line of the Beagle 2 Mars rover being lost after landing on Mars and the implication is that an evil Decepticon destroys it as, “the only warning we will ever get.”
While I doubt that transforming Lamborghini’s are the cause, a space probe orbiting Mars has recently gone missing. The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched on November 7, 1996, is one of several probes currently studying Mars. (The others include the orbiters Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.) The original mission of the MGS was scheduled to last only about two years, but NASA has repeatedly extended the mission making the MGS the longest operating spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The MGS was launched in part to replace the Mars Observer, which disappeared in 1993 before reaching Mars (again, probably not Decepticons). Most of the Mars Observer’s instruments were rebuilt and installed on the MGS.
It has gathered more information on the Red Planet than all previous missions combined, all in all the spacecraft has been a tremendously successful workhorse.
The mission was most recently extended on October 1, however, early this month problems began to arise. On November 2 the spacecraft was sent commands for a routine moving of its solar panels. The spacecraft reported that the motor responsible for moving one of the panels had problems and had as a result switched to backup systems. While this is how the spacecraft is programmed to respond, no transmissions from the spacecraft were received for two days. On November 5 several transmissions were received that indicated the spacecraft had entered a “safe” mode, a pre-programmed state of minimal activity. After receiving no transmissions from the spacecraft on November 6 NASA engineers figured the spacecraft had followed further safety protocols when it determines a solar panel is stuck which result in turning the spacecraft so the panels face the sun, which result in making successful transmissions to Earth difficult. This past Monday NASA had hoped to get an image of the MGS from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but was unsuccessful. Yesterday NASA engineers sent a signal to the MGS that requested that it turn on a beacon on one of the two Mars rovers on the surface. Unfortunately, the Opportunity Rover did not get a signal from the MRS yesterday, but NASA will try again today. If that fails, NASA will continue to attempt to contract the MGS through the end of the year, but it may be that the mission of the Mars Global Surveyor may finally have come to an end.
One of the things the MGS did that I thought was interesting was take pictures of other orbiters and past landers on the Mars surface. The goal of these types of photos was to place the landers into a geological context, which helps scientists to understand the results these landers have returned. The Mars Global Surveyor had taken images of Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, Mars Pathfinder, and both Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.
It is even possible that the Mars Global Surveyor has found the location of the Mars Polar Lander, which was a failed mission that lost contact with Earth in December of 1999.
Images from the Mars Global Surveyor are available for viewing on Science on a Sphere at the Science Musuem of Minnesota.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is crashing another spacecraft into another object in space, and I just have to say I like their style! After intentionally crashing into a comet last year, the ESA plans to crash its lunar orbiter, SMART 1, into the moon on September 3, 2006. The best part is that they are coordinating the crash so that it will happen on the visual side of the moon so that it can be seen (using telescopes) from Earth. If all goes according to plan, the impact time will be good for big telescopes in Northwest America. But if the spacecraft hits a hill on earlier passes, the viewing location will change.
SMART-1 launched on September 27, 2003, and tested an array of new technologies, including the first use of an ion engine (solar electric propulsion) for interplanetary travels, deep-space communication methods for spacecraft, and techniques to achieve autonomous spacecraft navigation.
The spacecraft was only planned to operate for six months, but its mission was extended, and will now end on September 3 when it meets its demise on the surface of the moon.