Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on the way to the launch of Vostok 1 0n 12 April 1961. Gagarin’s flight lasted just under two hours and he made one orbit of the Earth. (Image: NASA)
Well, here we are at the start of 2011. While it looks like being a fairly tough year, there is still plenty to look forward to.
There are at least three important space milestones to commemorate in 2011.
The big one is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight on Vostok 1. On 12 April 1961, at 9.07 a.m. Moscow time, Gagarin lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and became both the first Human in space and the first to orbit the Earth. It was a stunning achievement that shocked the West and sent the space race into overdrive.
Then, there is the 40th anniversary of Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Launched on 30 May 1971, it reached Mars on 13 Nov 1971.
Finally, there is the 35tt anniversary of the successful landing on Mars of Viking 1 and 2 (touch down was in July and September 1976). Not surprisingly, the data sent back by the Viking Landers did not settle the question of whether there is, or ever was, life on Mars. However, the measurements of the Martian atmosphere made by the Landers proved crucial in identifying Mars as the source of the SNC meteorites.
2011 looks like being a very busy year in space. Here are just a few highlights.
The Stardust spacecraft, having already successfully returned to Earth samples from comet Wild 2, will visit the comet Tempel 1 (closest encounter on 14 February 2011). Tempel 1 was previously visited in 2005 by the Deep Impact mission, which controversially blasted a huge hole in the comet. Now, Stardust (renamed Stardust NExT) is returning to carry out further investigations.
On 18 March, the NASA spacecraft Messenger will enter orbit around Mercury. Launched on 3 August 2004, Messenger will spend over a year orbiting Mercury, with the aim of mapping its surface and studying its exosphere and magnetosphere.
Launch of the Dawn spacecraft from Cape Canaveral on 27 September 2007. Dawn will study the asteroid 4 vesta for approximately one year starting in July 2011. It will then journey on and go into orbit around Ceres in 2015. Ceres is the largest body in the asteriod belt and is classed as a dwarf planet.
For me, the big space event of the year will be the arrival of the NASA Dawn spacecraft at the asteroid 4 Vesta during July. The second largest body in the asteroid belt, Vesta is the source of an important group of meteorites known as HEDs. Ground-based observation, and the study of HED meteorites, can only provide limited information about the geology of Vesta. Dawn will collect a wealth of data relevant to the formation and evolution of this important asteroid. It should be a very exciting encounter.
The NASA GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) twin lunar orbiters will be launched on 8 September. The primary scientific goal of the mission is to determine the internal structure of the Moon. In view of the continuing uncertainty about the origin of the Moon (see previous blog entry), the GRAIL mission is particularly timely.
Originally scheduled for October 2009, the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory rover is now set for November 2011. This new vehicle is both larger and able to travel further than either of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The Mars Science Laboratory is designed to assess whether conditions on Mars have ever been suitable for life. In a very real sense, this mission takes up the gauntlet laid down by the Viking Landers.
There are some goodbyes to say too.
The Space Shuttle is due to retire in 2011, but it is still uncertain when exactly the last mission will take place. Recent reports suggest that an additional flight of Atlantis (STS-135) is now likely to depart in late summer, over thirty years after the inaugural flight of Columbia on 12 April 1981.
So, lots to look forward to. And just in case you are getting frustrated by all the doom and gloom and need to let off steam, what better place than the Final Frontier, because remember: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream! HAPPY NEW YEAR