National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
Science & Technology
State of the Solar System
Graphic showing individual planets says:

<P>State of the Solar System 2013</P>

<P>We live in a golden age of Solar System exploration. As of the start of 2013, we have flown by all of the planets out to Neptune and we're on our way to Pluto. We are exploring Mars with two rovers and the latest in a fleet of orbiters. We have spacecraft studying the Sun at the heart of the Solar System and the outskirts where interstellar space begins. We are in orbit around Mercury, flying to a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, and continuing an extensive tour of Saturn and its moons. Many missions are cooperative endeavors with the space agencies of other nations.</P>


<P>Currently flying: SDO, STEREO, Hinode, RHESSI, Cluster, ACE, SOHO, and Wind. These spacecraft study the Sun, its interactions with Earth, and the environment of the inner Solar System.</P>

<P>2012 highlights: Discovery that during this cycle of the magnetic pole reversal which occurs every 11 years, the north pole is changing much earlier than the south. SDO continued to provide movies which have revolutionized our understanding of solar activity.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: IRIS, which will study how the solar atmosphere is energized, is scheduled for launch. Solar Maximum (peak of 11-year sunspot cycle, with increased rates of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, geomagnetic storms and auroras) is due but predicted to be weak, in what appears to be the smallest sunspot cycle since 1906.</P>


<P>Currently flying: MESSENGER (first Mercury orbiter)</P>

<P>2012 highlights: Completed Mercury's first global survey. Found surprises in surface composition, determined that the planet's core is even larger than previously thought, and discovered new evidence for water ice in permanently shadowed polar craters.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: Current mission ends March 17, but extension is under discussion.</P>


<P>Currently flying: Venus Express, a European Space Agency (ESA) orbiter.</P>

<P>Earth's Moon</P>

<P>Currently flying: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), ARTEMIS</P>

<P>2012 highlights: LRO mapped the lunar surface, including 3-D images, and found evidence of water ice in a permanently shadowed crater at the south pole. The GRAIL mission mapped the Moon's gravitational field to unprecedented resolution which, combined with LRO's topography data, enables scientists to infer the Moon's composition from crust to core.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: LRO will continue investigating the lunar surface. ARTEMIS will continue studying the Moon's interaction with the solar wind among other investigations. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is scheduled for launch.</P>


<P>Currently operating on the surface: Curiosity and Opportunity rovers</P>

<P>Currently orbiting: Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express (ESA with NASA participation)</P>

<P>2012 highlights: Spectacular landing of Curiosity rover in Gale Crater, where it discovered an ancient stream bed that might have been habitable. Opportunity set a record of nearly nine Earth-years (so far) of exploration on the Martian surface.  MRO investigated surface changes, including possible brine flows. Odyssey and MRO detected aqueous minerals, a sign of past water, at several new locations.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: MAVEN orbiter is scheduled for launch. Curiosity will continue to explore Gale Crater and begin climbing Mt. Sharp to investigate the planet's history preserved in its rock layers. Opportunity will explore areas of Endeavour Crater where orbiters found signs of minerals formed in water. Odyssey, MRO and Mars Express will continue to map Mars from orbit and monitor changes on the surface. The 2016 InSight lander is in development.</P>

<P>Asteroid belt</P>

<P>Currently flying: Dawn</P>

<P>2012 highlights: Finished orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta in September and began the journey to dwarf-planet Ceres.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: Will continue to chase Ceres around the Sun (and catch up with it in 2015).</P>


<P>Currently flying: Juno is en route.</P>

<P>2012 highlights: The spacecraft adjusted its trajectory for an upcoming Earth flyby.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: Will fly by Earth in October for a gravity assist to boost its speed and set course for a 2016 arrival at Jupiter.</P>


<P>Currently flying: Cassini</P>

<P>2012 highlights: Following a giant storm on Saturn, Cassini observed a huge, hot beacon in the atmosphere unlike anything seen in the Solar System. Saw seasonal changes on Titan and found evidence there for a vast subsurface ocean. Advanced our understanding of the geyser moon Enceladus with three close flybys and photographed a tiny, egg-shaped moon with no visible craters.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013:<br>
Cassini will fly by Titan eight times to observe seasonal changes and map the surface with radar, and will conduct one flyby of Rhea, Saturn's second largest moon. In July, it will image Saturn backlit by the Sun to uncover unique information about its rings.</P>


<P>Currently flying: New Horizons is en route.</P>

<P>2012 highlights: The spacecraft spent the year traveling between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. It rehearsed exploration procedures in May, then resumed deep-space hibernation in July.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: Will continue to cross the expanse between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, with a more thorough exploration rehearsal in July. (Will cross Neptune's orbit in 2014 and arrive at Pluto in 2015.)</P>


<P>Currently flying: Rosetta (ESA with NASA participation)</P>

<P>2012 highlights: The spacecraft continued its journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.</P>

<P>Outlook for 2013: Will remain in deep-space hibernation until January 2014, the year it will rendezvous with the comet and deploy a lander.</P>

<P>Outer heliosphere<br>
(region far beyond all the planets, where the Sun's magnetic field and solar wind give way to the interstellar medium)</P>

<P>Currently flying: Voyager 1, Voyager 2, IBEX</P>

<P>2012 highlights: At about 11 billion miles (18 billion km) from the Sun for Voyager 1 and about 9 billion miles (15 billion km) for Voyager 2, these spacecraft are probing the outer boundary of the heliosphere.</P>

<P>IBEX orbits Earth and detects particles that have traveled from the edge?of the heliosphere. It measured the Solar System's speed through the?interstellar medium and found that it is not fast enough to produce the?previously expected bow shock.</P>

Outlook for 2013: These spacecraft will continue to help us understand conditions in the uncharted outskirts of the Solar System.

Last Updated: 6 February 2013

Science Features
Astronomy Features
Technology Assessment Reports
Sungrazing Comets


Best of NASA Science
NASA Science Highlights
Technology Features
Lectures & Discussions

Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writer: Autumn Burdick
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 6 Feb 2013