Solar System Exploration: Spacecraft – The Future

There is a huge amount of observation and scientific research that can be carried out from Earth. Either ground or orbital telescopes and equipment are now able to give us an unprecedented view of just just the solar system but the universe as a whole. But in order to find out more like what’s behind the veil of Titan’s atmosphere or to get a close up view of Pluto or land a man on the moon then the only way to do it is with spacecraft.

Spacecraft fall into two distinct categories, manned and unmanned. So far the furthest that a manned spacecraft has been to is the moon, but we seem to be inching towards manned missions that go further into space than ever before. The problem is that manned spacecraft are big, heavy, and need to keep the human(s) travelling alive so they’re expensive.


 

The future of Space travel within the solar system

Never at any time since the Moon landings has the human race looked forward to such an exciting future in space travel. Just looking to the near future NASA’s new and as yet unlaunched Space Launch System (SLS) is looking at taking man back to the Moon.

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SLS – Credit NASA

With big plans to use the SLS to take us beyond the Moon, to Mars and perhaps further. The plans are big and the system is expensive so launches will be limited and every one will need to bring us a big step closer to our ultimate goals.

Along with this other big ventures like the dream chaser are an exciting addition to the commercial possibilities of spaceflight. Created by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, initially as a proposal to NASA for commercial crew possibilities, despite NASA not taking it up the Dream Chaser is still being pursued and really could happen.

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Sierra Nevada Corporations’ Dream Chaser

This would be a pretty amazing thing as it would bring the space plane back into being, which is pretty amazing and much more exciting than the capsules than harken back to the 1950’s which splash down rather unceremoniously into the sea.

 


 

Nearer into the future there’s Space S’s manned dragon capsule. Capable of sending up to seven humans into space and landing back on Earth to be refuelled and reused. There are big plans the the dragon capsule, it designed to be able to send astronauts to ISS and beyond. Space X want to use Dragon 2 to send people to the Moon and with an updated version to Mars.

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Artist’s concept drawing of the Space X Dragon 2

This is the first time ever that a commercial enterprise has had such ambitious plans for space travel and has created a new space race to Mars. This time the race is between commercial companies but between competing countries. Elon Musk has already bet that he will get a man on Mars before Boeing does the same for NASA.

 


 

Robotic Interstellar Travel – Daedalus

But while this is all well and good, with missions to Mars, back to the Moon and such being mentioned – what about the starships? What isea have we come up with to travel between the stars?

The first concept for an interstellar probe was drawn up by the British Interplanetary Society. The idea was to answer the question of whether or not interstellar travel was actually possible. Thought up back in 1978 the scope of the project was to come up with a spacecraft design that could travel to a nearby star within a human lifetime using current technology or technology that would soon become available.

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BAS – Daedalus Concept

Running on frozen deuterium pellets nuclear reactions Daedalus was conceived. Able to achieve a speed of 12% of the speed of light Daedalus would travel to Barnard’s star in about 60 years. As a concept this is pretty incredible, especially considering as it was conceived less than 10 years after the Moon landings and is still talked about today as a benchmark project that could one day see life.

 


 

 Manned Interstellar Travel

This is where the little golden nugget of wonder keeps in, that holy grail of sailing between the stars in a spacecraft that can travel the distances between the stars in days or week, not years., just like in the tales of Star Trek.

Is it possible?

Is it practical?

The answer to this isn’t simple, as in Daedalus the answer is not yet. But we kind of know how to in theory like all things it’s how to make it happen in practice. But this hasn’t stopped the boffins from designing a potential craft to do the job.

IXS Enterprise

IXS Enterprise is a real stap at taking a look at what the first starship might look like. Using an Albecurrie drive to warp space and propel it towards the stars faster than light (FTL), it’s reckoned that IXS Enterprise if it achieved reality could travel to Alpha Centauri in a couple of weeks. At the speed of light even this would take a couple of years.

The potential is exciting, but to get there there are insurmountable hurdles to overcome even if the drive can be made to work. Making sure the humans can survive the massive acceleration to do this would be just one.

 


 

Even within our own solar system there’s a huge amount of excitement around space travel right now. The vision is that within a generation humans could be looking at the surface of Pluto for themselves. The only thing holding us back is the drive and the will do so.

How have you found the Solar System Exploration series so far? I have ideas on some future posts but what ideas do you have? Should I be going further out?

Let me know.

NOTE: Images taken from the Internet, no ownership claimed – credit to creators.

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Solar System Exploration: Spacecraft – The Present

There is a huge amount of observation and scientific research that can be carried out from Earth. Either ground or orbital telescopes and equipment are now able to give us an unprecedented view of just just the solar system but the universe as a whole. But in order to find out more like what’s behind the veil of Titan’s atmosphere or to get a close up view of Pluto or land a man on the moon then the only way to do it is with spacecraft.

Spacecraft fall into two distinct categories, manned and unmanned. So far the furthest that a manned spacecraft has been to is the moon, but we seem to be inching towards manned missions that go further into space than ever before. The problem is that manned spacecraft are big, heavy, and need to keep the human(s) travelling alive so they’re expensive.


 

Right here, right now the state of human space exploration is in flux. The beloved Space Shuttle is gone, consigned to history and right now it feels like there’s a void without a reusable space plane. BUt there is still much going on.

Soyuz

The Soyuz space module is the most reliable launch vehicle in service in the world. It has been around since the 1960’s and was built to send Russian cosmonauts to the moon.

soyuz

Currently the only way for manned missions to reach the International space station the Soyuz spacecraft and rocket is the workhorse of the human space exploration effort. Regularly flying missions to ISS which are both manned and un-manned.

Soyuz 1

While this Russian launch system is by no means the most up to date it it has been updated over time with previous models superseded in order to keep the launch system as up to date and mission relevant as possible.


 

NASA

At this time NASA isn’t able to launch manned missions and is progressing it’s manned launch capability. But it is developing new systems for taking man back to the Moon and beyond, with it’s eyes firmly set on Mars.

But private companies are now developing launch systems to be able to carry out manned and unmanned missions for NASA, in a move that is turning the space industry into a commercial venture.

SpaceX is leading the race to commercialize spaceflight. It’s developed the impressive Falcon 9 spacecraft that is able to return to it’s launchpad after deploying it’s cargo into orbit.

Falcon 9

For this SpaceX has also developed the re-usable Dragon cargo module to carry payloads and experiments into orbit. Elon Musk seems to be driving his spacecraft in the re-usable direction, keeping costs down and enabling faster turnarounds on flights.

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Capitalizing on this SpaceX has also developed the Falcon Heavy, capable of sending more into space and deeper into space. Paving the way for Elon’s dream to land a man on Mars before anyone else.

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The Falcon Heavy is essentially made up of three Falcon 9 rockets. In front of the whole world, on February 6th 2018 the first Falcon Heavy  launched it’s test payload into space. The now famous Tesla roaster and Starman into space while playing David Bowie’s Space oddity.

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The International Space Station

 

The ISS is as it suggests a multinational space station effort. The first section was launched in 1998, the final pressurized section was launched in 2011 and the station is expected to run until around 2024/5 after which the future is less certain but the cost of running the station may fall into commercial hands. There is talk of the Russians taking some of their sections to create their own space station.

ISS

These are fairly uncertain times fore space exploration, but what is interesting is that commercial enterprises are starting to use space services and exploration to make money, this proves that rather than space exploration being a drain on public finances, it can be a relative gold mine if run properly.

So while the present is looking a bit bland, the future could be very different.

 

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Solar System Exploration: Spacecraft – The Past

There is a huge amount of observation and scientific research that can be carried out from Earth. Either ground or orbital telescopes and equipment are now able to give us an unprecedented view of just just the solar system but the universe as a whole. But in order to find out more like what’s behind the veil of Titan’s atmosphere or to get a close up view of Pluto or land a man on the moon then the only way to do it is with spacecraft.

Spacecraft fall into two distinct categories, manned and unmanned. So far the furthest that a manned spacecraft has been to is the moon, but we seem to be inching towards manned missions that go further into space than ever before. The problem is that manned spacecraft are big, heavy, and need to keep the human(s) travelling alive so they’re expensive. The unmanned craft are much chaper and chaper to launch and run.

Every exploration story has a beginning and space exploration is no different. Starting with the first spaceship and moving towards present day we can see how far space exploration has come.

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Sputnik 1 (Satellite 1) was launched on the 4th October 1957 by Soviet Union into low Earth orbit. It transmitted radio signals from it’s four antenna’s for three weeks before its batteries dies. It continued to orbit for another two months before re-entering Earth atmosphere.

Sputnik marked the start of the human race’s push towards space, the planets and the stars. At the time it sparked a panic in the US and started the space race between Russia and the US.

Vostok 1 took the first human into space, again the Soviet Union achieved this. Yuri Gagarin was launched into space and completed an orbit of the Earth on the 12th April 1961. After this these were a number of people that were launched into space. Alan Shepherd became the first American in space aboard his Freedom 7 spacecraft.

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These first flights paved the way for manned spaceflight  and soon the sights were set on a more ambitious target – the Moon. Both America and the Soviet union throwing their resources into achieving this target first.

On the 16th July 1969 Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were launched aboard a Saturn V rocket.

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Four Days later Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin followed shortly after. Taken to the surface in the Eagle lander craft the two men made history and achieved a goal that man had set itself since almost time began.

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There were a number of Apollo missions to land on the Moon, only one of which wasn’t successful but not one astronaut died in the Apollo landing missions. At outstanding achievement, but not without cost – the crew of Apollo 1 all losing their lives in a catastrophic fire.

 


 

After this it was decided that space needed to become more accessible and now the moon had been conquered the next target for manned missions has been Mars and this is been unchanged in the passing decades. But progress didn’t stop and on 12th April 1981 – twenty years after the first manned space flight the space shuttle Columbia carried John Young and Robert Crippen into low Earth orbit. Columbia orbited the Earth 36 times and retuend safely to Earth.

The Space Shuttle was the first and spacecaft built. The idea was that the shuttle would make acess to Earth orbit cheaper and esier, however maintaing the Shuttle was not as cost effective as expected, disposable spacecraft were more cost effective at deploying satellites and cargo.

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Called the Buran it bore a striking resemblence to the US Shuttle. The Russians built their own version of the space shuttle.

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Little known about, it completed one unmanned Earth orbit in 1988 – it was destroyed in 2002 after the hangar it was kept in collapsed.

 


 

On top of this mankind was establishing living space in Earth orbit, the American’s building and launching the Skylab space station in 1973.

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After a program of space stations the USSR launcher Mir in 1986.

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These missions and what was learned fed into the International Space Station (ISS) which is in use today. While this isn’t every mission that took place from the start, these missions and spacecraft were the trail blazers for what is going on today and whatever will come in the future.

 

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Solar System Exploration: Planet X

Since the discovery of Neptune there has always been the nagging question of “are there any other planets out there?” This question is by no means baseless, mathematical models similar to the ones used to predict the existence of Neptune have suggested that there’s something pretty big out there that’s having an effect on the outer planets.

The discovery of Pluto silenced this speculation for a while until that fact that Pluto’s size was unable to account for the effects observed on the outer planets becasue it is simply too small. In fact in recent years other dwarf planets like Pluto have been discovered in the outer reaches of the solar system.

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Speculation

As usual with any mystery there is a great deal of speculation around this elusive ninth planet. Some from the scientific community suggest that a planet with the mass of Neptune is way out past the Kuiper belt with an orbital period of tens of thousands of years while others suggest that it’s the rogue planet Nubiru that collided with the Earth during it’s formation and created the moon from the debris.

Planet x 1

Some other myths have suggested that gravitational shifts in the Cassini probe during it’s mission to Saturn indicated planet nine’s presence, this didn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny though. There is a lot of excitement building at times around the possible discovery of this planet. But so far, nothing has been confirmed or seen by mathematical calculations or by telescope.

The information from NASA is understandably sketchy becasue as yet nothing has been found. But unusual behaviour in the orbits of dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt are are big clue on what might be going on.

An idea of what might be  going on is shown here. The highly elliptical orbits of the outer dwarf planets and the myterious planet 9.

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There is real work going into this, mathematical modelling, searching there is a buzz in the science community about the possiblity of the existence of this planet. It can’t be just dismissed as a NASA conspiracy either, this has been going on since around the time of the discovery of Neptune. Long before NASA was even thought of.

But one thing most of the scientific community can agree on is this: An evil planet Nubiru is not about the decimate the Earth.

 

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Solar System Exploration – The Kuiper Belt

Beyond the orbit of the outer giants, beyond the orbit of Pluto even is a region of the solar system is the Kuiper belt. A place where the material left over from the creation of the solar system resides. We’re not quite into interstellar space (the space between the stars) yet, in fact we’re not totally sure where that begins yet. The Voyager probes that are the farthest human object from Earth are helping us to find this out.

The Kuiper belt isn’t a single object, it’s many object forming a ring around the sun from the orbit of Neptune’s e (30AU’s) to 50 AU’s from the sun. It’s in this belt that frozen comets, and icy dwarf planets are made. Pluto and Neptune’s moon Triton are thought to be Kuiper belt objects, captured and brought nearer to the sun. But what else do we know is out there?

Dwarf Planets

The Kuiper belt is known to be the region of a number of Dwarf planets:

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Eris

Makemake

Haunea

Sedna

Quaoar

Are the main bodies, but other smaller object such as Ixion, Varuna and Orcus are continually being discovered. Pluto is also now classified as a dwarf planet and a Kuiper belt object and Neptune’s moon Triton is suspected to be a large Kuiper belt object that was captured by Neptune’s gravity as it orbits Neptune the wrong way. Triton is made up in a very similar way to Pluto to give further weight to this theory.

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Voyager 2’s flyby in 1989 made discoveries of volcanoes or frozen methane and details on terrains which up until then we didn’t know existed. It was our first glimpse of what a Kuiper belt object was.


new-horizons

New Horizon’s flew past Pluto on 15th January 2015. The historic encounter brought back images and data of a world which up until then was almost completely unknown. p until then Pluto and it’s largest moon Charon had merely been a small and detail-less point of light in even the most powerful telescope.

There was always the possibility that New Horizons would be used to explore other Kuiper belt objects. Now it has been granted it’s second mission and New Horizons has been steered to make a close encounter with the rather unromantically named 2014 MU69 on January 1st 2019.

New Horizons Kuiper Belt Object Encounter

This will be the furthest object ever encountered by a human spacecraft to date at over 43 times the distance the Earth is from the Sun. What we will find is a mystery, it might be another ball of frozen gas, rock and ice or something completely different. Either way it will give us more information about what is in the Kuiper belt.


Further Exploration:

The Kuiper belt is a long, long way off and it takes a long time to get there. Any future missions are going to have to overcome this problem and justifying going out there is another problem. This is why New Horizons is the first and only probe to go out there and look at anything. Maybe we can look at more before New Horizons speeds out of the solar system. But in the meantime, advances with space telescopes mean we’re getting much more data that we ever have been before.

Hubble was used to plan the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, looking for other moons that needed to be avoided. Hubble found a small handful, handy to know when you’re shooting long distance like that. Dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt are giving up more of their secrets and revealing moons – There’s a whole solar system out there!

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Solar System Exploration – Pluto

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Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. Analysis of the outer planets suggested a planet out beyond Neptune and having taken photographs of the night sky and comparing them the movement of Pluto across the sky gave it’s position away. The mass of Pluto did not account for the gravitational anomalies, but Pluto was originally designated a planet and named.

Pluto is the Greek God of the Underworld, whose earlier name was Hades. Pluto was seen as a more positive figure, being a God of the afterlife rather than death.

 


 

Facts about Pluto

 

 


 

Moons of Pluto

The biggest moon of Pluto is Charon (pronounced Sharon), there are four others moons of Pluto – Styx, Nix Kerberos and Hydra. All of them keeping with the theme of the underworld, Charon being the carrier of souls to the underworld across the river Styx.

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Charon was discovered in June 1978 by James Christy, becasue of the small nature of these objects and the great distance Charon merely appeared as bulge to Pluto. The debate about whether Charon was a moon or a feature of Pluto was finally settled when Pluto’s orbit aligned with Earths between 1985 and 1990. Charon was named after James’s wife, whose nickname was Char. When this conincided with Greek Mythology the name was adopted.

Charon seems to be made up manly by water ice, however there is differentiation between the northern and southern sides of the moon. This can be seen with the relatively craterless north side and the cratered southern side. The dive to this can be seen with the enormous crack between the two halves.

 


 

Re-classification

After Pluto was discovered, a number of other objects similar in size to Pluto or larger were discovered in an area called the Kuiper belt, where Pluto resides. This caused debate about whether Pluto was a planet or not.

In 2006 the IAU (International Astronomical Union) decided that a planet must fulfill three criteria to be designated a planet. These are:

  1. It must orbit the sun.
  2. It must have enough mass to form a nearly round shape (a perfectly round shape won’t be achieved).
  3. It must have cleared the neighbourhood. This means it’s must be the most grvitationally dominant object in it’s system.

Because Pluto doesn’t meet the third criteria it was decided to re-classify Pluto to a dwarf planet. This decision has met with controversy and the debate hasn’t ended.

 


Inspiration

Holst never wrote a piece specifically for Pluto, however his Ode to death based around WWI events feature death heavily and Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead could also derive inspiration from his world.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Recent Events

In July 2015 the New Horizon’s space probe flew past Pluto, taking pictures and making a variety of observations. This was the first time that a probe had visited the world. This was a flyby mission because the speed that New Horizons was travelling was so fast that Pluto would not be able to capture it and it couldn’t carry enough fuel to slow it down enough.

New Horizons was launched at huge speed in order to reach Pluto in ten years, it had gone beyond the Moon’s orbit in a day and had reached Jupiter in about a year. Using it’s gravity to give it further speed and slingshot it on course to it’s destination. This also give us an idea of the huge expanse New Horizon’s had to cover and how distant Pluto is.

 

new-horizons

Despite this being only a flypast mission New Horizon’s gave us an amazing glimpse at a world we knew nothing about. Just like Triton around Neptune there was far more than we could expect. With a huge heart shaped plain of frozen Nitrogen, to huge ridges and mountains there was so much to explore an analyse, more than perhaps they ever expected.

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The future for New Horizons isn’t certain, after Pluto it could be sent to investigate other Kuiper Belt objects or it could be left to speed out of our solar system and towards the stars. But our first look at this world has been amazing, who knows if we will ever visit again in our lifetimes?

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Solar System Exploration – Neptune

Neptune1

Neptune was discovered in 1846, the credit of discovery is split between Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams. Both these astronomers used permutations in the orbit of Uranus to locate Neptune before observing it.  Neptune is the only planet to have been discovered from mathematical computation rather than direct observation. Although Galileo had observed Neptune in 1613 and had mistaken it for a star, so he is not credited for it’s discovery. Neptune is named after the Roman God of the sea and is also known as Poseidon as the Greek god of the sea.

Neptune is composed of an icy / metallic core and a helium / hydrogen atmosphere, the core making up  90% – 95% of it’s mass. The remaining 5% = 10% is it’s helium / hydrogen atmosphere. By comparison the core’s  is  between 10 x and 15 x Earth’s mass.


 

Facts about Neptune

 

 


 

Moons and rings

Many of Neptune’s moons have not been discovered until recent times, some not until the 1980’s from Earth and then in 1989 with the Voyager 2 flyby and still subsequently with Hubble.

Neptune has some amazing names attached to it’s Moons like Triton, Larissa, Thalassa, Despina and Galatea. Here a few that we know something about.

Triton

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Triton is named for the son of Poseidon in Greek mythology, it was discovered in 1846 by William Lassell.

Triton has a retrograde orbit, this means it orbit Neptune the opposite way to the other moons, because of this and it’s similar composition to Pluto it’s been suggested that Triton is a captured dwarf planet.

Made up of a surface of frozen nitrogen and 30-40% water ice. Triton is a very cold place to be with temperatures of -38K (-235C). Despite these frozen conditions Triton is one of the few moons in the solar system that’s know to be volcanic.

 

The volcanism doesn’t involve hot lava as on Earth, rather this is cryo volcanism. The sub surface Nitrogen vapourises under the surface until the pressure build enough to erupt to the surface. When Voyager 2 passed by in 1989 it captured images of geyser like eruptions coming from the surface.

 

 

Proteus

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Names after the shape changing God of the sea Proteus is 420km across and is the second largest of Neptune’s moons. It was discovered by Voyager 2 while on approach to Neptune. It wasn’t discovered from Earth because it is so close to Neptune.

 

Larissa

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Larissa was discovered from Earth by a star occultation in 1981. It’s the fourth largest of Neptune’s moons and is made up of debris from other moons smashed up by Triton.

 

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During the Voyager 2 flyby’s it discovered and photographed the rings of Neptune, faint and thin but several sets of rings were discovered. This settled a long standing discussion about discoveries of ring from Earth that couldn’t be substantiated. As usual these rings are likely to be made up of rock and ice.

 


 

Inspiration

This is the final piece in Holst’s The Planets suite. With Neptune being 30x further from the sun than the Earth it’s a mysterious place and this is beautifully captured in his piece in Neptune.

 


 

Recent Events

The first and only spacecraft to have visited Neptune is Voyager 2 back in 1989. It carried out a flyby mission, taking photographs taking measurements of Neptune and it’s moons, finding out anything it could about this mysterious world.

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What was immediately obvious is that Neptune is a world that’s very different from it’s neighbour Uranus. Neptune is a world that is visibly active with storms that have wind speeds over the speed of sound, clouds and spots.

 

Voyager 2 picked up the great dark spot on it’s approach, with smaller storms in in the lower bands of the planet. As Neptune is so far from the Sun, the most likely cause of these storms is the internal heating effect of the planet itself. Voyager found so much when it visited this distant and mysterious world, things that from Earth would be so difficult to observe. Storms, rings, volcanoes on Triton. There was far more than anyone expected or could have hoped for.

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Artist’s impression of how Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, might look from high above its surface. The distant Sun appears at the upper-left and the blue crescent of Neptune right of centre. Using the CRIRES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomers has been able to see that the summer is in full swing in Triton’s southern hemisphere.

There are no plans to go back and visit Neptune in the near future. The legacy that Voyager left behind as it left our solar system lives on though. With so much to go back for it’s only a matter of time before blue gem has to give up it’s secrets for us.

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Solar System Exploration – Uranus

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We’re really getting far away from the sun now as our exploration takes us to Uranus. Uranus is the first planet to have been discovered in relatively modern times with a telescope. It was discovered by William Hershel in 1781 who at first thought he had discovered a comet.

Uranus is the ancient deity God of the sky Ouranos, in Greek mythology. Father of Cronos (Saturn) and grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter).

Uranus is composed of an icy / metallic core and a helium / hydrogen atmosphere. The exact composition is not exactly known, but between 9 x and 13 x Earth’s mass makes up it’s core, the little remaining mass is it’s atmosphere.

 

Facts about Uranus

 

 


 

Moons

Uranus has 27 known moons, the 5 main moons are:

Miranda

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Named after Shakespeare’s character in the tempest, it was discovered in 1948 by Gerard Kuiper. At 470km it’s the smallest known object to be spherical under it’s own gravity. It’s tidally locked to Uranus so only one side ever faces it.

It’s surface is one of the most diverse in the solar system, this was discovered in the 1986 Voyager 2 flyby. It’s been suggested that  this is due to internal heating from Miranda’s interaction with the other nearby moons.

Ariel 

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Discovered in 1851 by William Lassell, Ariel is named after two characters in literature. Composed mainly of rock and ice Ariel is 1,150km  across. Several different terrain types have been identified on Ariel, Ridged, cratered and plains, each of these giving clues to the age of the different terrains and how the moon was formed.

 Umbriel

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Umbriel was also discovered in 1851 by William Lassell, named after a character in the poem The Rape of the Lock by Alexander pope. Umbriel is the darkest Uranus’s moons, again it’s made of rock and ice, it’s the most heavily impacted of the moons and this has a lot to do with how the surface was made. At 1,160km wide it’s Uranus’s third largest moon and the third furthest from Uranus.

Titania 

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Titania was discovered in 1787 by William Herschel, is named after the queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Titania is the largest of Uranus’s moons at 1,578km and the 8th largest in the solar system. Titania’s surface seems relatively less damaged by craters, this could be due to a surface melting that occurred, obliterating the old surface.

Oberon

uranus oberon

Titania was discovered in 1787 by William Herschel, is named after the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Oberon is 1,522km in diameter, the second largest of Uranus’s moons, it’s heavily cratered with an apparent slight red tint. Like all the other moons, it’s made mainly of rock and ice and is the furthers from Uranus.

 


 

Rings

Uranus has rings, like all the outer planets. They were discovered from Earth in an unusual way though. An airborne telescope flying over the pacific was using Uranus occultation of a star to make observations of it’s atmosphere. When the signal started dipping they thought that instrument faults had ruined their data.

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It was only after comparing the data before and after the occultation that they realised the ring dips were symmetrical – that had found the rings of Uranus.

 


 

Inspiration

 

The piece that Holst composed for Uranus is unusual to me, I’m not sure what the images were in his mind when it was written. But nonetheless, like a magician it didn’t give up it’s secrets easily and still doesn’t.


 

Recent Events

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Voyager 2 is to date the only human space craft to have visited Uranus. It flew past the planet in 1986, using the planet’s gravity to  guide it towards it’s final destination of Neptune.

On it’s approach to Uranus the scientist were expecting to be able to see more detail in the atmosphere as the probe approached. Even at a close distance Uranus’s atmosphere is virtually featureless. Only a few storms at very close range yielded any detail.

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This was the view of the planet on it’s approach, the rings were not visible as they are faint.

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Voyager passed by Uranus and used it’s gravity to fling it towards Neptune, it’s final destination in this solar system. To date Uranus has not been visited again by a human spacecraft, many of it’s secrets are yet to be discovered or solved.

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Solar System Exploration – Saturn

saturn voy 3

Moving away from Jupiter, our next visitor is Saturn. Saturn is twice the distance from the sun than Jupiter is, so there is a long, cold gap between the two worlds. This isn’t surprising as the gravitational pull of these two planets would either capture or knock away any other object of any substantial mass. As much as Jupiter is the king of the solar system, Saturn is the queen. It’s iconic rings sitting like a crown around it in a way not seen on any planet in the solar system.

Facts about Saturn

 

 


 

Moons

Many of Saturn’s 62 moons are less than 20 km in diameter, there is evidence to suggest that there are many large moons in Saturn’s rings that are yet to be discovered. Looking in close detail at four of Saturn’s moons we find they are different world on a very cold theme.

Titan

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Titan was the largest of Saturn’s moons, it was discovered by Christiaan Hyguens in 1655 and was the first to be discovered. It wasn’t named until 1847 however when John Herschel (Son of William Herschel – who discovered Uranus) published an extract on Saturn’s moons.

With a diameter 5,150km  Titan is larger than Mercury, however not as massive. Titan is the only known moon in the solar system to have a thick atmosphere. Visual examinations of Titan have not yielded any information on Titan’s surface, only with radar scanning from the Cassini – Huygens probe in 2004 that any surface details were known. It’s atmosphere is a thick soup of 98% Hydrogen and 1.6% Methane. Information from the Cassini probe suggests that there are Methane lakes on Titan and  that the thick atmosphere could be a primordial soup that could harbour or create life if the conditions permit.

 

Rhea

saturn - Rhea

Rhea was discovered in 1672 by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, however was not named until  1847 again by John Herschel . Rhea is an Icy world, made up from around 75% ice and 25% rock.

It is suggested that Rhea may have a ring system that isn’t easy observed. The data is unclear, but if it was so  Rhea would be the only known moon in the solar system to have a ring system.

Enceladus

saturn - Enclaedus

Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, little was know about this moon until the space age as it’s only 500km in diameter and observations were limited due to glare from Saturn. It was only until the space age that this small moon became far more interesting.

Enceladus is a world of frozen water, with a mix of new and old surfaces. The old oles marked with craters and the new surfaces smooth with huge cracks separating them.

Water volcanoes have been seen shooting water into space at immense speed, Cassini as been studying them and it’s now known that Saturn’s E ring had been created almost completely from the ejected matter from Enceladus.

 

 

Mimas

Mimas

Mimas had to be included in this little summary of Saturn’s moons. Yes, it is a moon and not a space station. That is all that needs to be said. A massive impact on Mimas in it’s history has created a feature that makes it look very much like the Death Star from Star Wars. It is however made from water and and rock and will not destroy planets.

Inspiration

Holst – Saturn

 Holst’s Saturn inspired musical piece for me definitely reflects a world that’s distant, cold and mighty. It has tunes that chill and inspire, it captures the sense of magnificence and beauty of Saturn

 


 

Recent Events

A number of probes have visited Saturn, Pioneer 10 was the first in 1979. In 1980 Voyager taking the first high definition pictures of the Saturn and some of its moons. Saturn’ s gravity flung the Voyager probe out of the plane of the solar system and out towards the stars.

Voyager 2 flew past in 1981 and made more measurements and took more pictures on its flyby, this time Saturn’s gravity was used to send Voyager 2 on towards Uranus.

Artist's Concept of Voyager

Artist’s concept of Voyager in flight.

 

In 2004 the Cassini-Huygens probe entered orbit around Saturn and began collecting data on Saturn and it’s moons. Titan was of particular interest and in December 2004 Cassini released the Huygens probe into Titans atmosphere.

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It collected data on the atmosphere for several hours before it landed. It contained to send data for 90 minutes after it landed. Huygens is so far the most distant human object to have landed on another world.

 

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Since 2004 Cassini has been passing by Saturn and its moons, finding out more and more about this mysterious world and it’s system of moons, how the rings were formed and what the moons are made of. One of the stark discoveries is that water seems to have been in good supply, the solar system seems in fact to have been soaked in water in it’s past. This is evident when examining Rhea and Enceladus in particular.

 

The Cassini mission came to an end in September 2017, after a series of dives within Saturn’s inner rings called the Grand Tour. The spacecraft was deorbited in order to prevent it contaminating  any of Saturn’s moons. This ended a 20 year era of space exploration, but the data from Cassini will be studied for many years to come.

 

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Solar System Exploration – Jupiter

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Moving away from the rocky planets of the inner solar system the first planet in this region is the king of the planets – Jupiter. This is especially fitting as Juno has just entered orbit of Jupiter at the start of it’s mission to find out more about this giant. Veiled in colourful clouds of hydrogen and Helium it is the largest and the most vivid of all the gas giants. With 67 known moons in stable orbits, Jupiter has the largest amount of moons of any planet in the solar system and with rings only discovered in the 1970’s too there is so much to Jupiter that it will be impossible to cover it all in this piece.

Facts about Jupiter

 

 


 

Moons

Because there are so many moons hurtling around Jupiter, covering them all is better served by looking at this link on Wikipedia on Jupiter’s moons:

Moons of Jupiter

There are the four major Galilean moons, discovered by Galileo (hence the names). These are the four largest moons that are visible with an ordinary pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Despite their similar locations, these worlds could not be more different.

IO

True-color image taken by the Galileo orbiter

IO is the most volcanic worlds in the solar system. IO’s surface is a barren sulfur rich surface, spewed from more than 400 volcanoes all over the moon. The  are generated from the kneading effect Jupiter’s gravity has on the small world.

 

Europa

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Europa, which is about the size of our moon has the smoothest surface of any known object in the solar system. It’s makeup is thought to be made of Nickel and Iron, but it’s the frozen water surface that has intrigued scientists for years. The frozen surface it expected to hide a sub surface ocean which could harbour life.

It’s surface is almost crater less, implying that it’s surface is frequently changing and re-freezing in order to keep it’s smooth nature. The surface is criss-crossed with giant ice cracks .

 

Ganymede

True-color image taken by the Galileo orbiter

Ganymede is the largest of Jupiter’s moons and is the only moon to have a magnetosphere. It has a roughly equal silicate rock / water ice makeup. It’s larger than Mercury, but with less mass. The origins of the lighter regions seen on Ganymede are unknown, but are suspected to be the result of tectonic activity.

 

Callisto

Callisto

Calliso is a moon made mostly of rock and ice, with little evidence of geologic activity on it’s thought it’s surface has been made completely from impacts of other objects. Callisto is the third largest moon in the solar system and Jupiter’s second largest moon.

 


Inspiration:

Holst’s musical inspiration for Jupiter, is big, loud, bold and Jovial. Exactly fitting for the king of our planets.

Holst – Jupiter

 

 

Recent Events

An artist’s impression of the Juno spacecraft approaching Jupiter.

 

Yesterday on the 4th of July 2016 Juno arrived at Jupiter and entered obit around the planet. It’s going to be taking measurements to find out more about what the planet is made of, this is going to give us clue to how the planet was formed. Currently several theories present about the planets format, data from Juno should help us pick one, or come up with another theory.

Juno – What do we hope to learn?

jupiter

Jupiter has been visited a number of times with unmanned probes, the pioneer missions being the first, with Voyagers 1 and 2 following after and giving us far more data about the planet and it’s moos, also discovering the Jupiter is a planet with rings.

jupiter rings

Since then, Cassini has flown past on the way to Saturn New Horizons also paid Jupiter a fleeting visit on it’s way to Pluto. The only mission to orbit Jupiter is the Galileo, which orbited Jupiter for seven years and gathers data on it’s atmosphere and moons before being deliberately aimed into the Jovian atmosphere, gathering a wealth of data before being crushed and vaporised by the intense pressure and heat.

jupiter-lights

Hubble has also bee able to gather data on Jupiter, these images showing the amazing detail Hubble can bring us of the planets by itself.

Keep an eye out for Jupiter on Juno – also they’re opening much of Juno’s camera to the public, enabling them to take and colour correct the pictures that they capture. This means space exploration is getting interactive and Jupiter is going to be more interesting.

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Solar System Exploration – Asteroid Belt and Ceres

 

The asteroid belt is a region that exists between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where a high number of asteroids have settled in their own orbits around the sun. There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in this region, ranging in size from the dwarf planet Ceres down to a dust particle.

 

Facts about the Asteroid Belt

Unlike the images of a dense region of rock as shown in science fiction, these asteroids in this region are spaced far apart. If we were to imagine travelling in this region in a spacecraft it would be difficult to hit an object without deliberately aiming for it. The total mass of material in the asteroid belt is estimated to be about 4% of the mass of the moon.

Credit: Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_belt

 

Prominent Objects in the Asteroid Belt

The most prominent objects in this region are Ceres, Vesta, Palla and Hygiea. These four bodies make up for half the mass of the asteroid belt. Ceres itself being the biggest being made up of around a third of the total mass.

The chart clearly shows the mass that the main objects in the Asteroid belt as a part of the total mass.

Ceres:

 

Being the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres makes up about 1/3 of the total mass of the asteroid be belt. Ceres is the only object in the asteroid belt to be rounded by it’s oven gravity. It’s generally know that Ceres is made up of rock and ice, it’s makeup has highlighted that the difference between asteroids an comets is not as dissimilar as once thought.

Ceres was discovered in 1801 and was originally designated as a planet, until other similar sized objects were discovered in the region. The name Ceres comes from the Roman God of agriculture.

Vesta

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Vesta has a mean diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers) and is irregularly shaped.  Vesta’s mass makes up about 9% of the total mass of the asteroid belt.

Vesta was discovered in 1807 and is named after the virgin Goddess of home and heart in Roman mythology.

 

Pallas

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Pallas is the third largest object in the asteroid belt, with a mean diameter of 318 miles (512 kilometers) it’s mass makes up for about 7% of the total mass of the asteroid belt. It is thought that Pallas is a proto-planet – the embryo of a planet that didn’t continue to form.

Pallas was discovered in 1802 and is named after Athena, Pallas is an alternative name sometimes used for Athena. Some stories say she took them name from a friend that she killed.

 

Hygiea

Hygiea is the fourth largest object in the asteroid belt, it’s irregular shape put’s it’s diameter at somewhere between 200-300 miles (350-500 kilometers) and makes up about 2.9% of the total mass of the asteroid belt.

Hygiea was discovered in 1849 and named after Hygieia the Greek Goddess of health.

 

Recent Events

In September 2007 the Dawn mission was launched in order to carry out observations on Vesta and Ceres. The mission was the first to visit two non-planetary objects. In order to be able to have the power to visit these two asteroids it uses a highly efficient ion drive to propel it.

Artists impression of Dawn over Vesta

In 2011 Dawn entered orbit around Vesta and carried out observations for a year. Dawn made discoveries about two massive asteroid impacts on Vesta, that damaged it’s interior and crumpled part of it’s surface and also about dark, carbon rich material observed on Vesta.

In 2012 the Vesta phase of the Dawn mission ended before proceeding to the second part of the mission – Ceres.

In March 2015 Dawn entered orbit around Ceres, but even before it arrived there one feature on Ceres was shining out to us – literally. Two bright spots shining out from with a crater named Occator. From a distance it looks like two bright shining lights are beaming out from the surface, theories bounced around about what these spots could be and certainly they’re tantalising as they are in stark contrast to the otherwise dusty grey surface.

Spots clearly visible as Dawn approaches Ceres

Dawns mission to Ceres’ has been dominated by finding out more about these spots and has been getting closer and closer to the surface to try and find the answers.

ceres crater 1

Occator Crater on Ceres showing bright spots

It is now thought that the white material is sodium carbonate, brought up to the surface by some kind of hydrothermal activity. This puts the possibility of water or water ice beneath the surface of Ceres and that the core may be hotter than originally thought.

What next for Dawn though? Dawn is likely to remain a permanent satellite of Ceres due to it’s highly stable orbit. But there is the possibility that the mission could be extended and a flyby of a third object such as Pallas could be carried out.

What is clear from the Dawn mission is the difference between asteroids and comets is less clear and of course even seemingly boring old asteroids hold secrets of great interest. Although they’ve not yet found huge spaceship eating worms!

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Solar System Exploration – Mars

Our next stopping place in the solar system is Mars. Mars is named after the Roman God of War, it’s also called the Red planet after it’s distinct red colour, which can be made out – even to the naked eye! It’s a terrestrial planet with some similarities to Earth, for example it’s relatively temperate, liquid water exists on the planet and the presence of two permanent ice caps at its poles.


Moons

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Mars has two small moons Phobos and Diemos, these moons are thought to be asteroids captured in Mars gravity rather than being left overs from the planets formation. Not much is known about these worlds and no probes have managed to successfully land on either moons, although this has been attempted with the Soviet Phobos missions Phobos 1  failed en route to Mars, Phobos 2 made it to Mars but contact was lost after it achieved Mars orbit.

Phobos is names after the Greek God Phobos son of Ares (Mars) and personified fear. Diemos was the twin brother of Phobos and personified terror.


Inspiration

 

 

With Mars being named after a God of War there was a lot to inspire Holst when he created his piece for Mars. This is arguably the best of the Planets pieces that he composed and with it’s powerful and dark theme is definitely war like and timeless.


 Recent Events

Of all the planets, Mars is probably the planet most visited by our probes and is most explored. Our fascination with the red planet and our unwavering belief that there is some kind of life on Mars keeps us going back. It’s likely that a manned mission to Mars will happen withing my lifetime – I certainly hope so, because it’s this adventure that will inspire people of all ages to reconnect with exploration and to start wondering again.

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But at this time there are five spacecraft orbiting Mars (2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN and Mars Orbiter Mission) and two on the surface (Mars Exploration RoverOpportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity).

At this time there are no other planets with as much activity around or on them and the only other object in the solar system with an object on it which is operation is a comet. This all means that we’able to get stunning images of Mars surface and sample the soil for chemistry and signs of life – even bacteria.

 

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All this data on Mars allows us a spectacular look at it’s surface and we can even create moving visuals if it’s surface.

 

 


Other (spooky) stuff:

With the human race so keen to find life on Mars it can only be imagined the kind of excitement caused when Viking 1 captured the picture of what seems to be a human face on Mars when it was looking for a landing site for the lander on July 25th 1976 (Picture on the right).

 

 

More recent pictures such as the one taken in 2001 show a much less spooky image of the rock formation. But even if we don’t think it’s a face – it seems to be a very regular formation. This formation has in the past and still causes debate on how natural it is and what it could really be or mean.

The surface of Mars is rocky, sandy and very inhospitable as these images show.

But even though this planet is millions of miles away, many say they feel the surface looks familiar somehow, this could be that it looks like any arid desert on Earth. But many of the surface features are familiar and wouldn’t look out of place on Earth.


Whether there is life on Mars or not, whether there is a mans face on Mars or not, the red planet will continue to be an object of curiosity. Mars will almost certainly be the base for our fist colony outside of Earth, with scientists thinking about how to make Mars habitable.

The only real question is this – when will a human set foot on Mars? It’s not an if anymore.

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