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Planetary Science: New Worlds, New Discoveries
Columnist: Dr. James Green
Planetary Science: New Worlds, New Discoveries
September 2010

On September 10, 2010, at the Newseum in Washington D.C., NASA hosted a fabulous event commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Nation's first comet encounter: the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) pass through the tail of comet Giacobini- Zinner on September 11, 1985.

That encounter was the first time, then or since, a comet's tail has been fully traversed and the discoveries made regarding the induced magnetotail properties advanced cometary science for years to come. It also provided insights into the origins of our solar system. In the past 25 years, only five comet encounters have occurred by the U.S.

In the next six months, we will have two: Hartley 2 on November 4th and again with Tempel 1 on February 14, 2011.

Both of those encounters, indeed, even ICE's encounter, is due to the creative trajectories of the extended missions of EPOXI and Stardust-NExT. The ICE spacecraft was originally known as International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) satellite and was stationed at L1. ISEE-3 worked in concert with ISEE-1 &-2 that measured the response of the Earth's magnetosphere to the solar wind input as measured by ISEE-3. EPOXI was the Deep Impact satellite and Stardust NExT was Stardust. The event last Friday served to raise awareness of the upcoming comet encounters and to let the public know of the return of its investment planetary science provides. The Comet Event also marked the unofficial start to an initiative we have named: Year of the Solar System.

Year of the Solar System - It's A Martian Year!
The year's Division of Planetary Science (DPS) meeting in Pasadena, CA will mark the official kick-off of the initiative whose goals are to 1) Raise Awareness; 2) Build Excitement and 3) Make Connections with target audiences regarding planetary science activities from October 2010 until September 2012. Lasting 687 days (a Martian Year), the planetary science community will be embarking on a set of missions and events truly historical in nature.

Upcoming Planetary Science Mission Events (As of September 7, 2010)

2010

  • September 11: 25th Anniversary of the First Comet Encounter
    Logo: 25 years first comet encounter
  • September 16: LRO transfer to SMD
  • November 4: EPOXI encounters Comet Hartley 2
  • Mid-November: Launch of O/OREOS
  • December 7: Venus Climate Orbiter (JAXA) arrives at Venus

2011

  • Early 2011: Mars Opportunity Rover gets to Endeavour Crater
  • February 14: Stardust-NExT encounters Comet Tempel-1
  • February 25: Planetary Decadel Survey (Released to NASA)
  • March 18: MESSENGER orbit insertion at Mercury
  • July: Dawn orbit insertion at asteroid Vesta
  • August: Juno launch to Jupiter
  • September: GRAIL launch to the Moon
  • November: MSL launch to Mars

2012

  • Mid-year: Dawn leaves Vesta, starts on its journey to Ceres
  • August: MSL lands on Mars

Not only with the comet encounters, but during YSS several missions will achieve important milestones - exploring asteroids, and investigating our near and distant neighbors, including the Sun, Mercury, Saturn. For the first time in history we will launch three planetary missions in four months: Juno to Jupiter, GRAIL to the Earth's Moon and Mars Science Laboratory to Mars.

The Year of the Solar System presents a unique opportunity for NASA to raise awareness in a way that allows everyone to better understand our Solar System and consequently planet Earth.

As shown above, we have a number of fantastic mission milestones coming up but what this really represents is the new data that will bring the new discoveries in hand. I want you all to be a part of this.

It's a New Moon
September 2010 also marks several "firsts" for our community. After stunning successes, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter program management will transfer from NASA's Exploration Science Mission Directorate (ESMD) to the Planetary Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). This represents a new management paradigm where those organizations with particular expertise lead the respective phase of a program's life cycle. ESMD did a fabulous job of mission execution and on September 16, 2010, that lead responsibility will transfer to PSD to execute with LRO becoming a science driven mission. The handoff is on track, and we are looking forward to future collaborations with our sister Directorate.

Color image of moon that says it's a new moon: exploration aids science; science aids exploration

In addition, on September 18, 2010, the first International Observe the Moon Night will occur. This global celebration builds on the success of last year's collaborative observation in the US as part of the International Year of Astronomy. For locations where you can join in the fun, please see: http://observethemoonnight.org/

PSD has recently upgraded its solarsystem.nasa.gov website. I recently received feedback that there were too many sites with incorrect or misleading information regarding planetary science activities. This site will be where; either as a portal or as a source of content, the general public can go to for accurate, timely information on planetary science. By the end of September, new interactive features will be housed on the site. I encourage you to work with Alice Wessen/JPL, Web Editor, to either link to your sites or to host your particular content.

Finally, an exhibition of planetary imagery will be showcased at Dulles Airport's Gateway Gallery. About 50 images located in the area from the Terminal D to the new train station will be on display for six months beginning September 30th. About 13,000 people a day traverse that tunnel and will get to experience the grandeur of the solar system that we often take for granted. If you cannot get to Dulles during this time, a snapshot of the images can be found at http://www.beyondexhibition.net

Challenge
In the past decade, planetary scientists have explored a number of bodies in our Solar System, some in great detail, in search of water so essential for life. Well, we have found many signatures of past or present water at nearly every destination we have looked!

Now it's time for planetary science to take the next step and explore these and other new worlds in search of new discoveries like signs of life beyond Earth. I challenge the community to plan and implement the final step of the scientific process ... communicating your discoveries. Our Year of the Solar System, I challenge you to be proactive and share the excitement of our solar system worlds, your discoveries in new and innovative ways. Let your friends, family, and community groups know what you are doing and why they should care...after all, science is not done -- until it's shared!


Read More by Dr. James Green

About: Dr. James Green
Photo of Dr. James Green
Dr. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters. He views his job as the keeper of NASA's planetary program and the top advocate for that program to flourish and grow.
Read More by Dr. James Green
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Last Updated: 16 Feb 2011