I participate in a Monday morning meeting every week with the Administrator, Associate Administrator, Chief of Staff, heads of Mission Directorates (Aeronautics, Exploration Systems, Science, Space Operations), and several others. It is a great opportunity to strategize and for all of us to gain situational awareness. Most of all, I love to hear about progress that is taking place in individual programs across the Agency. Almost every week, Science comes in with amazing new images and discoveries. There are a lot of stressful issues that have to be resolved in the Agency, just like any other organization, but we get re-energized when we see the significant progress that is being made throughout the Agency.
Phoenix Mars Lander Launch
On Saturday, August 5, in the very early morning, in a launch window of only a few minutes, the Phoenix Mars lander rocketed off the pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I tried valiantly to get down for the launch, but could not make it work. Those who were there reported that there was not a cloud in the sky. The rocket hit its mark putting the spacecraft on a direct entry trajectory toward the north polar tundra region on Mars. Phoenix will look for frozen water, digging just under the soil, when it arrives in May 2008.
I am very proud of our accomplishments in solar system exploration. Shortly after I arrived at the Agency, I attended the New Horizons launch. The launch did not go the day I was there due to weather, but it did successfully lift off on January 19, 2006. New Horizons will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and its Moon, Charon (The International Astronomical Union now classifies Pluto as a dwarf planet, but the definition of a planet continues to be debated. Colleen Hartman, the Deputy AA for Science, tells me that most people do call Pluto a planet because it orbits the Sun and it is large enough that its own gravity has pulled it into a spherical shape.). New Horizons flew by Jupiter in February 2007 and the pictures of Jupiter that it returned are spectacular.
Another example of an incredible solar system exploration mission is the Cassini Mission. The Cassini spacecraft, carrying the European Huygens probe, is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn. It launched in 1997, arrived at Saturn in July 2004, and is still returning incredible data. Scientists are working hard analyzing the latest Cassini flyby of the moon Titan that occurred on July 19. This moon pass was unique in that it provided the only opportunity for the imaging science team to observe the equatorial or central part of Titan’s dark region at high resolution.
Cassini also may have found evidence of internal heat erupting on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Active volcanism is known to exist on just three solar system bodies: Earth, Jupiter’s moon Io, and possibly Neptune’s moon Triton. Cassini’s discovery may add Enceladus to this list.
The next planetary mission is Dawn which is slated to be launched in its September-October 2007 window. Dawn is targeted to orbit two well-known and large asteroids, Vesta then Ceres. The asteroid belt is between Mars and Jupiter and is a region in which the gravitational pull of Jupiter has kept a planet from forming. Vesta and Ceres are protoplanets, the building blocks of planets. By studying these asteroids with Dawn, we are going back in time to what it must have been like at the dawn of our solar system, hence the mission’s name.
We have learned, are learning, and will learn so much about our solar system from NASA’s solar system exploration missions. We are working to understand our solar system’s origins. We have adopted a “follow the water” strategy to search for possible extraterrestrial life. We are satisfying the human need to explore, understand, and discover. I hope you’ll join me in regularly visiting NASA’s solar system exploration website for information about new discoveries and planned missions.