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Space news: Landing on an asteroid, visiting Mercury and collecting solar data

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On December 3, 2014, Jaxa, the Japanese space agency launched its asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2. The spacecraft approached the asteroid Ryugu on June 27, 2018 and is now at a distance of 20 km observation distance.

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera — Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 at around 16:00 JST.
Image credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.

But this is not the exciting part of this mission. First of all, Hyabusa 2 landed two rovers, Minerva II1, which are surveying the asteroid’s surface, in addition to MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout), which collected data for 16 hours.

Even more excitingly, after surveying the asteroid for a year and a half, the spacecraft will return to Earth in December 2020, after collecting soil samples (which it will do 3 times). All of this is to help us understand the origins of the planets, the origins of water and life on Earth. This has only been attempted once before by sister spacecraft Hyabusa.

Artist’s impression of the BepiColombo spacecraft at Mercury. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

From asteroids to our inner solar system. Europe’s first mission to Mercury, Bepi Colombo was launched on October 20, 2018, from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou. This one is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (Esa) and the Japanese Space Agency (Jaxa). Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and is also the least explored one. To date only two missions have visited and observed Mercury up close: Nasa’s Mariner 10 probe, which launched in 1973, and its MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission, which launched in 2004.

For Bepi Colombo, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) is carrying two orbiters and is expected to reach the planet in 2025 after a number of gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury itself. The spacecraft will study and understand the composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and history of Mercury. Importantly, it will test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

This is a challenging mission because of Mercury’s proximity to the Sun and its harsh environment. The orbiters and their instruments have to withstand and survive extreme temperatures. Additionally, the planet’s orbit is difficult for spacecraft to reach and a lot of energy is required to successfully brake it into a suitable orbit around the planet. However, once it reaches Mercury, we can look forward to a lot of exciting photographs and scientific data from our smallest planetary neighbour.

Which brings us to Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe. It will travel through the Sun’s atmosphere closer to the surface than any spacecraft before and provide the closest ever observations of a star. It was launched on August 12, 2018 and will take about seven years to cover the (approx.) 93 million miles (150 million km) to the Sun, obviously with flybys and gravity assists from Venus. ccording to Nasa: “The spacecraft will fly close enough to the Sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly though the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles. It will trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.” All of this will not only help us to further understand stars in the Universe but also how the solar wind can affect us.

The view from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR instrument on Sept. 25, 2018, shows Earth, the bright sphere near the middle of the right-hand panel. Image credits: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

On October 30, 2018, the probe crossed the speed of 153,454 miles per hour making it the fastest-ever human-made object relative to the Sun and breaking the record set by the German-American Helios 2 mission in April 1976. It also holds the record for the current closest approach to the Sun by any human-made spacecraft (crossing 26.55 million miles). The final closest approach it will make will be 3.83 million miles from the Sun in 2024, when it will also reach speeds of 430,000 miles per hour.

Today, October 31, 2018 the probe will begin its first solar encounter continuing to fly closer and closer to the Sun’s surface until it reaches the point closest to the Sun (perihelion) for the first time on Nov. 5.

These are all the exciting space events that have happened in October, with lots more to look forward to. All of them will help us to understand the origins of the Universe and ultimately, of us. Happy Halloween!

Featured image: Mercury. Credit NASA
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