Comets, asteroids, dwarf planets: what’s going on

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Credit: universesimplified.com

If you’re interested in space science, you might enjoy some interesting talks I heard last week about ongoing and upcoming space missions. These talks were presented to NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, and the video recordings of the talks have been archived (see below).

I would especially recommend these talks:

  • Bonnie Buratti, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The Rosetta spacecraft will execute a controlled crash into the comet at the end of September. (Boohoo!)
  • Carol Raymond, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres (following the spacecraft’s investigation of the asteroid Vesta a few years back). Dawn’s end-of-mission date was June 30. Just in time, NASA approved an extension of the Dawn mission, to continue its study of Ceres.
  • Hal Weaver, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which is now moving on to study Kuiper belt objects. (This mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern is well known as the mission’s chief spokesperson. I found Weaver, the project scientist, equally engaging.)
  • Dante Lauretta, University of Arizona, on the OSIRIS-ReX mission to collect and return a sample from the asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-ReX is scheduled to launch in September.

The agenda for the meeting is available here. Click on “(video)” after the titles of the talks to watch them (you can click on talk titles to look at Powerpoint slides, but I’d recommend watching the talks first.)

What struck me about these presenters was how enthusiastic – truly enthusiastic – they are about their work.

If you’re a technology nerd, you might be interested in some of the talks presented at this meeting by recipients of grants from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. I was especially intrigued by these three: “Seismic exploration of small bodies,” “Cubesat with nanostructured sensing instrumentation,” and “Triton hopper: exploring Neptune’s captured Kuiper Belt object.” (I could actually understand the concepts – at least while I was listening to the talks….)

When I hear about ideas such as these for further solar system exploration, I feel as though the future of scientific space exploration will be rich. Then I remember that NASA’s planetary science mission budget is, and will very likely remain, limited. And I recall that a significant majority of NASA’s budget goes to human space flight projects. And I wonder, again, whether human space flight is worth it. In a recent presentation on NASA’s space technology roadmapping activity, I overheard the observation that it would be a lot easier to fill in the gaps in these roadmaps if human space flight requirements were off the table.

Indeed….

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