Not the Only Robot in the Sky: Curiosity’s Cousins

Rhea
Saturn and its moon Rhea, as seen by Curiosity's robotic cousin Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Who could forget the dramatic landing of the Mars Curiosity rover? (Not to mention Mohawk Guy). It’s exciting—if a little surprising—to see such an avalanche of attention heaped on any space mission. With some luck, Curiosity will be exploring Mars and inspiring headlines for years to come.

And that’s not all! The best part? Curiosity is not alone.

In fact, right now more than a dozen robotic spacecraft are exploring almost every corner of the sky. With a few mouse clicks you can ride along with all of them. Each provides regular or even daily dispatches from the mind-blowing places they’re revealing. Some of them sound like they’re straight out of science fiction.

Here are five of the most interesting space robots now roaming the High Frontier (and there are lots of others!)


Mars Exploration Rovers
Official site | Wikipedia

Mars Exploration Rovers

Nearly a decade into what was supposed to be a 90-day mission, the robotic geologist Spirit has finally succumbed to the harsh Martian desert—but its twin, Opportunity, is still going strong! It sends almost daily updates about its travels, half a world away from Curiosity’s landing site.

a Mars-scape


Cassini
Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System (a 3D simulator)

Cassini

This orbiter is flying through the mini solar system that is Saturn, its shimmering rings and its family of world-sized moons. It has already discovered geysers on the ice moon Enceladus and an underground ocean beneath the thick haze of Titan.

Saturn and Titan Geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus


Dawn
Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System

Dawn

This is the first mission dedicated to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, with two ports of call. Propelled by an ion engine, the spacecraft is just leaving the giant asteroid Vesta, on its way to be the first to explore Ceres, the largest proto-planet in the belt.

asteroid Vesta mineral map of Vesta


MESSENGER
Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System

MESSENGER

Mysterious Mercury is a little less so, now that this mission has been circling that strange little world. It has revealed a stark beauty all its own.


New Horizons
Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System

New Horizons

Whether you call it a planet or not, Pluto is one of the last uncharted blank spaces on the map. That will all change in 2015, when the New Horizons probe flies by, giving us our first close-up look. What will we see? That’s just it: nobody knows! Meanwhile, the robotic ship took some amazing shots when it buzzed past Jupiter a few years ago. (Yeah, it’s a looong trip.)

Jupiter & Io Jupiter Atmosphere


Voyager

Bonus mission: Voyager

Official site | Wikipedia | WolframAlpha

Talk about a mission that just keeps on giving. After a spectacular and legendary tour of the outer planets in the 70s and 80s, the twin Voyager 1 and 2 probes are right now on the verge of leaving the solar system and heading out into interstellar space. See a conversation I had with Ed Stone, the mission’s chief scientist.


If anyone tries to tell you that NASA has shut down or that the Space Age is over, remind them of these amazing adventures. Not to mention the fact that many nations are undertaking similar missions.

At the same time, the future of this golden age of discovery is very much under threat. Despite the dramatic successes of NASA’s planetary science programs in recent years, draconian budget cuts in the U.S. disproportionately target this very success. Learn more and get involved!

Hidden Treasures

mineral map of Vesta
A false-color mineral map of the asteroid Vesta, overlaid on a natural-color image. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech/UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Mike Malaska

The robotic spacecraft Dawn has now settled into its science orbit around the second-largest asteroid, Vesta. Dawn is now orbiting at a distance of about 2,700 kilometres, some six times closer than when the initial observations, such as the one above, were made last month.

This will give scientists a chance to get a closer look at the large, weird crater at Vesta’s south pole, a series of equatorial ridges, and other unexpected features.

In this image, Mike Malaska has overlaid an enhanced, false-color mineral map over a natural-color shot of the same area. The different colors represent different kinds of minerals, revealing what the eye can’t see on its own.

Sent by: Dawn | From: Vesta | Released: July, 2011 | Credit: NASA/JPL/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Malaska | Image source

Dawn Begins Official Science Phase, Investigates Weird Crater

The robotic spacecraft Dawn has now settled into its science orbit around the second-largest asteroid, Vesta. Dawn is now orbiting at a distance of about 2,700 kilometres, some six times closer than when the initial observations were made last month.

This will give scientists a chance to get a closer look at the large, weird crater at Vesta’s south pole, a series of equatorial ridges, and other unexpected features.

The science journal Nature reports that one theory to explain the crater’s unusual characteristics: Vesta completed an entire revolution while the crater was forming. See the full story.

All Eyes on Vesta

asteroid Vesta

From JPL: “NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 9, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers) away from Vesta, which is also considered a protoplanet because it is a large body that almost became a planet. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers).”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA