It was the end of an era as the shuttle Atlantis touched down in July 2011 for the final time. NASA’s space shuttles captured the imaginations of the world ferrying humans into space for the last thirty years. The names Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will live in the minds of space fans for many years to come as the first reusable spacecrafts, and that really pushed the boundaries of our experience off of our blue planet.
But, whilst NASA works out the long-term future of its manned space flights, there are some really cool unmanned missions launching in the second half of 2011 that are equally worth taking note of…
The solar-powered spacecraft Juno launched successfully on 5th August 2011 on its five year journey to Jupiter. In reaching the largest planet of our solar system in July 2016, it’ll hopefully start to unlock some secrets, specifically:
- Determine how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which helps determine which planet formation theory is correct (or if new theories are needed)
- Look deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties
- Map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet’s deep structure
- Explore and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras – Jupiter’s northern and southern lights – providing new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.
The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission is due to launch on 8th September 2011. It sets out to map the Moon’s interior structure from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the Moon. As a secondary objective, GRAIL will extend knowledge gained from the Moon to the other terrestrial planets. Again, this is really neat!
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is the latest rover set to visit the Red Planet. Curiosity is due to launch on 25th November 2011 and will further examine the possibility of microbial life (past or present) on Mars.
This is all the more topical given the recent news from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that there may be seasonal flows of liquid salty water on the Martian surface. That could provide a habitat for organisms similar to those found living in the harsh, cold, permafrost conditions of the Arctic. No doubt, all eyes will be on Curiosity though it won’t land anywhere close to where NASA discovered these possible flows of liquid water.
Overall, these are still incredibly exciting times for space exploration and the results from these missions will inspire further ventures away from Earth.