Meteorites and Space Exploration
There are dozens of active spacecraft flying around various parts of
our solar system. In addition, there are many more yet to be launched. Here is
a short-listing of current and future space missions that May have a direct
impact to meteorite science.
Some missions are sample-return missions that will provide actual physical
material that can be studied in the laboratory. Others provide scientific
observations that will shed light on various aspects of the very meteorites
gracing our collections.
The following list contains material taken directly from the Internet site for
that mission. The URL for the mission is at the end of each entry. For a
complete listing of all past, present and future space missions involving NASA
can be found at the Office of Space Science at:
Another general Internet site of interest is the Solar System page at the Jet
Propultion Laboratory. This site provides an interactive connection between
spacecraft and planets, as well as a few interesting tidbits about each
Missions Currently Operating:
Stardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the exploration
of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial
material from outside the orbit of the Moon. The Stardust spacecraft was
launched on February 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard
a Delta II rocket. The primary goal of Stardust is to collect dust and
carbon-based samples during its closest encounter with Comet Wild 2 -
pronounced "Vilt 2" after the name of its Swiss discoverer - is a rendezvous
scheduled to take place in January 2004, after nearly four years of space
travel. Additionally, the Stardust spacecraft will bring back samples of
interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming into our Solar
System from the direction of Sagittarius. These materials are believed to
consist of ancient pre-solar interstellar grains and nebular that include
remnants from the formation of the Solar System. Analysis of such fascinating
celestial specks is expected to yield important insights into the evolution of
the Sun its planets and possibly even the origin of life itself.
Genesis is a sample-return mission to collect solar wind. Here are the main
Genesis Mission Science Objectives:
*To obtain precise measures of solar isotopic abundances.
Genesis will measure isotopic compositions of oxygen, nitrogen, and noble
gases. These data will enable scientists to better understand the isotopic
variations in meteorites, comets, lunar samples, and planetary
*To obtain greatly improved measures of solar elemental abundances.
*To provide a reservoir of solar matter for 21st century science
research, eliminating the need for future solar wind sample return mission.
Missions in Development:
Mars Exploration Rover Missions (MERs)
NASA's twin robot geologists, the Mars Exploration Rovers, will launch toward
Mars in 2003 in search of answers about the history of water on Mars. Primary
among the mission's scientific goals is to search for and characterize a wide
range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The
spacecraft will be targeted to sites that appear to have been affected by
liquid water in the past.
Deep Impact will be the first mission to make a spectacular football
stadium-sized crater 7-15 stories deep into a speeding comet. Dramatic images
from both the flyby spacecraft and the impactor will be sent back to distant
Earth as data in near-real time. These first ever views deep beneath a comet's
surface, and additional scientific measurements will provide clues to the
formation of the solar system. Amateur astronomers will combine efforts with
astronomers at larger telescopes to offer the public an earth-based look at
this incredible July 2005 encounter with a comet.
MESSENGER will peel back Mercury's veil of mystery. MESSENGER is a ME
rcury Surface, Space EN vironment, GE ochemistry, and Ranging mission to orbit
Mercury following two reconnaissance flybys. MESSENGER will investigate key
science questions using an optimized set of miniaturized instruments: What is
the origin of Mercury's high density? What are the composition and structure
of its crust? What is Mercury's tectonic history, and is its surface shaped by
volcanism? What are the characteristics of the thin atmosphere and miniature
magnetosphere? And what is the nature of the mysterious polar caps?
Rosetta will study the nucleus of comet Wirtanen and its environment in great
detail for a period of nearly two years, the near-nucleus phase starting at a
heliocentric distance of about 3.25 AU, with far observation activities
leading ultimately to close observation (from about one km distance).
Missions Under Study:
Dawn's goal is to characterize the conditions and processes of the solar
system's earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest
protoplanets remaining intact since their formations. Ceres and Vesta reside
in the extensive zone between Mars and Jupiter together with many other
smaller bodies, called the asteroid belt. Each has followed a very different
evolutionary path constrained by the diversity of processes that operated
during the first few million years of solar system evolution.
Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM)
SCIM, Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars, has been selected by
NASA as a finalist in its competition for low-cost Mars Scout missions. During
its high-speed encounter, SCIM will collect samples of Martian dust and
atmosphere and return them to Earth. By allowing scientists worldwide to study
these samples in their laboratories, SCIM will help to unlock the secrets of
Mars water, climate, and geologic evolution.