In November 1964 NASA launched Mariner 4, the fourth of its ambitious series of robotic explorations of our three inner planet neighbors. Mariner 1 was lost during launch; Mariner 2 successfully flew past Venus; Mariner 3 failed to deploy; but on July 14–15, 1965, the 575-lb Mariner 4 became the first spacecraft to fly past Mars and capture close-up images of another planet from space.
Of course the pictures that Mariner 4 captured were in greyscale and not like the beautiful color views we are used to seeing from spacecraft today. But thanks to one creative scientist at NASA (and a box of crayons) our first scenes of Mars from space were in brilliant color.
It’s finally happened—after over 14 years on Mars (14!!!) NASA’s Opportunity rover has turned its arm-mounted camera around to take a look at itself, giving us the very first true “selfie” of the Mars Exploration Rover mission! Hello Opportunity!
“This object came from outside our solar system.”
— Rob Weryk, postdoctoral researcher at University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy
On October 14, 2017, what appears to be a comet (er, make that asteroid…read more below) sped past Earth at a distance of about 15 million miles after swinging around the Sun. It had come within 23.4 million miles of our home star over a month earlier on Sept. 9, and in fact wasn’t spotted by astronomers until Oct. 18—four days after its closest pass by us.
Further observations showed that the approximately 525-foot-wide object (an estimate based on its reflectivity) first approached traveling 16 miles a second from the direction of the constellation Lyra—quite a high angle from the plane of the rest of the Solar System—and is on a hyperbolic trajectory, moving quickly enough both in- and outbound along its course to permanently escape the Sun’s gravity unlike any other
comet asteroid ever observed.
Well, the day has come. Today is the last full day that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will exist, and in fact right now it is on its final path—a grand soaring arc that will send it down into the atmosphere of Saturn itself on the morning of Friday, Sept. 15. It will be the closest to the ringed planet any spacecraft will have ever gotten, but it’s a trip that Cassini will not long survive. It’s the long-planned end of a glorious mission of exploration and discovery—not to mention beauty, art, and inspiration—and while Cassini itself will soon be gone, the enormous amount of data it has gathered in the twenty years since its launch will continue to drive discovery for many, many years to come.
(At least that’s what we’re all telling ourselves to make the loss a bit easier to bear.)
Yes, it’s true. As of today, August 15, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has less than 31 days—one full month—left in operation and, sadly, its existence. On September 15, 2017, Cassini will end its mission with a controlled dive into Saturn’s atmosphere…a journey that it will not long survive. But up until the very end Cassini, which has been exploring the majestic ringed planet and its family of moons since it arrived in the summer of 2004, will be making scientific observations and sending the data back to us here on Earth—at least as long as it possibly can. That data, in fact, will still be en route across the 900 million miles of space between us and Saturn for almost an hour after the spacecraft will have succumbed to the forces of atmospheric entry.
When Cassini’s final signal is received on Earth it will be a ghost message, sent from a ship that no longer exists.