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News • Mission Update
Dawn delivers composition maps of Vesta
Space Shorts
SpaceX success
The commercial launch
company SpaceX achieved its
second successful high-altitude
launch with the delivery of the
Thaicom-6 television satellite
to a geosynchronous transfer
orbit using the upgraded
Falcon 9 rocket. This is the eighth
successful launch in a row for
this launch vehicle and the third
of the three flights needed for
certification to launch national
security satellites for the US
Air Force. SpaceX has nearly 50
satellites planned for launch and
a regular schedule throughout
2014, 60% for commercial
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, have
used the multiwavelength filters on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft to create compositional maps of the surface of the
asteroid Vesta, which Dawn visited in 2011 and 2012. Dawn’s framing camera, whose construction was led by the
MPI team, uses selected wavelengths of visible and infrared light which they have now used to highlight subtle
differences in rock colour, texture and composition, when they in turn present in false-colour images.
Their image of crater Aelia (above) shows that the flows from the 4.3 km diameter crater have two distinct
parts, possibly a mineralogical difference arising from crater formation.
An image of the crater Antona, a 17 km diameter impact crater within the vast Rheasilvia basin in Vesta’s
southern hemisphere, has been processed to pick out the iron-rich mineral pyroxene and allows researchers to
distinguish between coarser- and finer-grained ejecta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLAMPS/DLR/IDA)
China lands
rabbit on Moon
China landed its Chang’e-3 spacecraft in the Sinus Iridium (Bay of
Rainbows), part of the Mare Imperium on 14 December, becoming the
third nation to successfully perform
a soft landing on the Moon.
The rover Yutu (figure 1) got to
work almost straightaway, moving
off the lander just seven hours after
arrival. Although it had a brief system shutdown on 16 December, the
rover (whose name means “jade rabbit”) has been stable and working
well, according to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. The rover’s
first task was the now traditional
landing photograph, with the lander
and rover each taking pictures of the
other, including Yutu’s Chinese flag.
The rover mission is expected to
last about a year and will include
periods of inactivity during each
15-day-long lunar night. Yutu began
by producing spectra of the lunar
regolith with the Active Particleinduced X-ray Spectrometer on 25
The landing is a significant step
forward for China’s booming space
programme. The year 2013 also saw
Chinese astronauts in space and the
continuing upgrading of the Beidou
Navigation Satellite System (BDS) to
work alongside satellite navigation
systems launched by the US, Russia
A&G • February 2014 • Vol. 55
Kepler’s enigmas
A census of the exoplanets found
by NASA’s Kepler mission so far
finds that they are dominated by
a type of planet that is not part
of our solar system. Threequarters of the planet candidates
identified in Kepler data so far
are planets between the sizes of
Earth and Neptune. Assessment
of their mass has to wait for
follow-up observations of radial
velocity (or transit variations for
multiplanet systems). Many of
those with measured mass have
a structure more like miniNeptunes than superEarths.
They have a structure like a
peach, comprising a rocky core
and less dense, often gassy,
envelope. Some do not have an
envelope at all. How such planets
form and in such abundance is a
challenge for the models.
1: This photo of the rover Yutu was taken by the Chang’e-3 lander on 22
December 2013, after completing a semicircular tour of the lander. (Xinhua)
and the European Union. And now
that Chang’e-3 has landed successfully, China Daily reports that the
back-up probe Chang’e-4 will be
adapted to verify technologies for
the sample return mission Chang’e-5,
intended for launch in 2017.
While these missions are all
robotic, the Chinese space programme also includes the development of plant habitats for lunar
conditions, fueling widespread speculation that Chinese astronauts will
visit the Moon in the coming years.
Swarm mission
starts well
ESA’s constellation of magnetosphere mappers, Swarm, was suc-
cessfully launched on 22 November
2013. Once in their near-circular
polar orbits, each of the three satellites extended a 4 m long boom carrying its instruments.
The absolute scalar magnetometer
is at the far end of the boom, separate
from electrical and magnetic fields
generated by satellite components,
with an optical bench carrying a vector magnetometer and star trackers
mounted half way along the boom.
The configuration and verification
stage of the mission has progressed
smoothly, ensuring that the satellites
were ready to move to their mission
orbits. Swarm was launched to an
orbit at 490 km altitude, but for the
planned four-year mission, two of
the satellites will orbit at 460 km and
one at 530 km.
Titan’s lakes
Cassini’s Solstice Mission is
revealing more detail about
Saturn’s moon Titan, especially
the region of lakes near its north
pole. Fly-bys have shown varied
depths to the seas and lakes,
and that some of their surfaces
are very smooth – as smooth as
the paint on your car according
to Cassini researchers. This
smooth surface means that the
liquid – mostly methane – is
essentially transparent to radar,
allowing the depth of one sea,
Ligeia Mare, to be measured at
170 m. The Cassini team has also
suggested that the concentration
of lakes and seas in one region
of Titan arises from some
favourable feature of the crust in
this region.