Mission Control

Comet Hartley 2 imaged by the Deep Impact spacecraft on 4th November 2010. This highly active comet is the subject of a special session at this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. (Image: NASA)

You might notice an increase in the number of space-related stories in the media over the next week or so. The main source of all this extraterrestrial news is the 42nd annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, currently taking place in Houston, Texas. The meeting was inaugurated in 1970 to discuss the initial scientific results obtained on the lunar samples returned by Apollo 11. Today LPSC, as it is generally referred to, covers a wide range of solar system science topics. With over 1800 participants, it is the largest and most important international meeting of planetary scientists.

So what are this year’s highlights?

The successful return of material from the asteroid Itokawa by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa is the subject of a special session. Preliminary investigation of the samples only started in January of this year, so the session provides the first opportunity for researchers to present their initial results.

For a long while now, the exploration of Mars has been one of the dominant themes at LPSC. This year is no exception. In particular, there are three special sessions on Martian glaciology, as well as sessions covering wind, water and alteration processes on Mars.

You will be pleased to know that the Moon has made a bit of a comeback this year. This reflects the recent discovery of ice deposits in lunar polar craters and the recognition that the Moon’s mantle may not have been as dry as was once thought. So there are three sessions on the formation and evolution of the Moon and other sessions on mare basalts, surface processes and lunar impacts.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft will go into orbit around Mercury in just over a week’s time, on March 17th. To give a flavour of things to come there was a session on various aspects of the geology of Mercury on the opening day of the conference.

The NASA Dawn spacecraft arrives in July to start a one year study of asteroid 4 Vesta. The second largest body in the asteroid belt, Vesta is the probable source of the HED meteorites. A session called “Vesta and HED meteorites: The Pre-Dawn perspective” looks at our present understanding of this important object. It will be fascinating to see how much things change once Dawn gets to work.

The encounter between the Deep Impact spacecraft and Comet Hartley 2 on 4th November 2010 is the subject of a special session. The comet was seen to be highly active, with jets of carbon dioxide ejecting large amounts of ice and dust.

You might think that all this new research would form the main focus of media reports originating from the conference. However, LPSC is also a venue at which the reality of budget cuts, and their effects on future space missions, are brought to the attention of the scientific community. Problems with the funding future Mars exploration, discussed at LPSC on Monday, were the subject of media coverage in the BBC yesterday.

Let’s hope that some of the great research results presented at the conference also get their fair share of media attention. It’s not all doom and gloom – far from it.

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