Cassini’s 20-year-long journey across the Solar System came to a fiery end today as the probe burned in Saturn’s atmosphere


The Cassini craft no longer exists, after taking a final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Its instruments maintained contact with Earth until the last seconds of the probe’s remarkable journey across the Solar System, sending data back to Earth in almost real time.

The craft travelled nearly 5 million miles since its launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida back in 1997. During this time, Cassini beamed home over 250 million images, uncovering amazing facts about Saturn, its moons, and other celestial bodies in the Solar System.

The nuclear-propelled craft had almost exhausted its fuel, a point after which it would have become uncontrollable. To avoid a random collision with one of Saturn’s moons or Saturn itself (which could have led to contamination of the soil by Earth bacteria), engineers decided to put Cassini in a terminal dive through Saturn’s atmosphere, to ensure it burned completely.

Cassini’s grand finale took place earlier today. Ground control confirmed it lost contact with the probe at exactly 11.55am GMT.

Cassini probe will vanish in a blaze of glory on September 15, after a two-decades long journey through space


The Cassini mission will make its last transmission ever in less than 48 hours, after a journey of nearly 5 billion miles across space.

Cassini’s grand finale will come on September 15, when the craft plunges down Saturn’s atmosphere, destroying itself in the process.

The probe was launched on October 15, 1997, and completed a series of flybys of Venus and Jupiter before setting course to Saturn, the planet where it spent most of its mission time.

In April this year, Cassini was set on a collision course with Saturn. The probe’s final destination saw it fly 22 times between the planet and its rings, sending never-before-seen close-up images of such enigmatic celestial body.

Cassini’s swan song will be the transmission of scientifically valuable data during its terminal dive into Saturn, for as long as the craft’s thrusters can keep its antenna pointed towards Earth.

NASA will test its new planetary defence system on an asteroid zooming close to our planet in October


NASA will get a chance to test its brand new planetary defence system in October, as 2012 TC4 will fly past Earth at a distance of just 4,200 miles. That is a very close call in astronomical terms indeed, though NASA have confirmed that the space rock will not hit our planet.

2012 TC4 is about 30mts across, and will become the test subject for a new detection and tracking network developed to assess the level of threat posed by rogue asteroids.

The next phase of NASA’s planetary defence system is the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, which should be ready by 2022.

Expanding Earth’s horizons: NASA scientists propose the launch of a planet-wide magnetic field to restore Mars’ atmosphere and make the Red Planet habitable


The colonization of the Red Planet may be one step closer to reality today, after NASA scientists proposed the creation of a magnetic field around Mars that could potentially make the planet habitable for future human generations.

Today, Mars is a barren wasteland. No life has existed there for billions of years.

But it wasn’t always like that. Scientists believe that the planet once held vast and deep oceans teeming with living creatures.

All this paradise-like conditions ended when Mars lost its magnetic field, between 3.7 and 4.2 billions of years ago. This allowed high-energy particles to gradually strip away its protective atmosphere. Once the atmosphere became thin enough, all life on Mars’ surface became extinct.

But wayward NASA people now believe that Mars’ once thick atmosphere could be restored by ‘coating’ the planet with a gigantic magnetic field. This artificial magnetosphere would shield Mars from the damaging effects of solar winds and other high-energy particles, much like Earth’s own magnetosphere does.

Once protected, Mars’ natural processes would begin restoring the planet’s atmosphere over time. As the atmosphere thickened, surface temperatures would rise enough so that carbon dioxide ice from Mars’ northern polar cap would begin to melt. In turn, this would trigger a greenhouse effect and cause the planet’s now frozen water wastes to thaw. In just a few generations, Mars might just have flowing rivers and vast oceans once again.

Should all these things happen as predicted, the exploration and colonization of Mars may become a reality within a few hundred years.

The research team that postulated all this did admit that the concepts and ideas are purely hypothetical at this point in time, but that has not deterred them from following their vision of turning the Red Planet into an Earth-like Blue Planet.

NASA locates wreckage of Schiaparelli EDM lander on Mars


NASA instrumentation has located the final resting place of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Schiaparelli probe. The spacecraft crashed into Mars’ surface on October 19 last, after a suspected malfunction on its final approach. Contact with the probe was lost about one minute from the Martian ground.

An ESA spokesperson said that they have not yet discerned the nature of the malfunction, but believe that a software glitch was the root cause of the failure. Telemetry data shows that the parachute designed to slow down the craft’s descent deployed too early, and that the reverse thrusters cut off too soon. According to the spokesperson, data proves that the thrusters did operate briefly, but not long enough to enable a safe landing, as the computer may have interpreted that the craft was closer to the ground than it really was. ESA Mission Control believes that the probe hit the Martian surface at terminal velocity, shattering on impact.

The crash site is located about 33mi away from where NASA Mars rover Opportunity was operating at the time.

Schiaparelli’s main mission was to test new technology for future landings on Mars.

NASA dispatches probe to asteroid that may impact on Earth in about 150 years


NASA has initiated the OSIRIS-REx mission, launching an unmanned probe on a seven-year journey across space to rendezvous with asteroid Bennu and return to Earth with samples gathered from the rock.

The probe successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 p.m. EDT (2305 GMT) on Sept. 8. If everything goes as scheduled, the probe will reach Bennu in August 2018, take some soil samples from its surface, and return to Earth in September 2023.

Scientists chose Bennu out of thousands of other potential targets primarily because of its size, orbit, composition, and more importantly, its age. The rock is a sort of time-capsule that holds material dating back to the origins of the Solar System. The science team behind the mission hopes to acquire further knowledge about the formation of planets and the Solar System itself.

Bennu’s indeed cataloged as a hazardous object, as its orbit may take it into a direct collision course with Earth late in the 22nd century.

Mars: The ultimate frontier


The Red Planet has been wetting mankind’s thirst for knowledge and exploration for several long decades now. The shiny red star in the night heavens has been the subject of countless movies, books, and other media throughout time.

Technical limitations have hitherto prevented man from travelling to Mars, but lately there has been somewhat of a rennaissance of the pioneering trip to Mars idea.

NASA is said to be researching possible landing sites ahead of a planned launch in the late 2030s. Scientists will meet in Houston next October to give serious discussion and thought to the issue of “exploration zones”. These are areas on the planet’s surface, about 62 miles-wide, which are deemed to offer enough resources (such as subssurface water ice) to support prospecting astronauts. Over the next few years, the space agency will utilise the Mars Odyssey and the Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter crafts to probe these selected areas to ascertain their suitability for landing and support human life.

Every two years or thereabouts, Mars and Earth’s orbit create optimal conditions for a launch. When the two planets are aligned, about 55 millions km separate mankind from its ultimate frontier. Though that may sound like a lot, in terms of cosmic distances, it’s a mere stone throw away.

Still, using currently available propulsion and space exploration technology, it would take a manned spaceship about nine long months to reach Mars’ surface, assuming all went according to plan. And that’s just a one way trip. The first crew to reach Mars will likely be forced to stay there, there’d be no coming back.

Space travel is inherently dangerous, of that there is little doubt. Disasters like the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia are a sad testament to mankind’s space faring endeavors.

And going to Mars would pose a completely new set of challenges. Putting aside the huge financial cost of a mission to Mars, there is the issue of the sheer distance between us and the Red Planet. Nine months, give or take, is a very long time to be locked inside a spaceship hurtling through space with a bunch of fellow men and women. A lot of psychological issues may arise.

Another danger would be the amount of radiation that the crew would be exposed to on their way over. Cosmic rays would constantly bombard the spacecraft, and the effects may cause deadly cancers in the long run. The crew may be dead, or dying, by the time they got to Mars. And that’s just cancer. Solar storms also pose a huge risk to the human heart and central nervous system. Subatomic particles from solar radiation can kill a person in a matter of hours.

So how to avoid dying in the name of science and exploration? Appropriate shielding of the craft would be an idea, but again, currently available technology hampers the prospect. Traditional lead shielding actually creates secondary radiation when hit by cosmic rays. A better proposition is water, but a water shield would need to be several meters thick to be effective. Again, not currently workable.

And then there’s the issue of what to do, once the ship arrived in Mars?

Mars is a hostile environment to humans. The planet has a very thin atmosphere, about one percent of the thickness of Earth’s own atmosphere. It consists of about 96% carbon dioxide and less than 0.2% oxygen, ergo not breathable. If a manned mission did make it to Mars, they would need to somehow manufacture their own oxygen to sustain life in the long term. To remedy this, NASA will carry out the Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) in its planned 2020 mission.

Also, huge dust storms sweep across Mars’ surface regularly, and these can last for a month at a time.

A lot remains to be solved, no less in the fiend of the potentially devastating psychological effects of a Mars stay.  Space missions in the past have had to be terminated early due to crew squabbles and disagreements. And who knows what the human mind may experience when faced with the sheer distance and isolation from one’s home planet.

So the challenges are huge, and so are the costs associated with all this. For now, the Red Planet remains tantalizingly just out of mankind’s reach, but the next couple of decades might see a successful mission land on the Red Planet’s surface, thus marking a historic milestone on human evolution.