An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
by Martin Horejsi of  Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books



NASA's Year of the Solar System

This year will be a better than average one for robotic space exploration. Here are just some of the highlights. More information can be found here and on the topic links.
NASA's Operating Missions

JPL Missions and Updates

The Sun  
  When Genesis returns its bounty back to earth on the 8th of September, it will be the first sample return from space since the moon landings! But no wide-open ocean splashdown here, instead in a feat James Bond would envy, NASA will use a helicopter to pluck the sample-return capsule out the air as it falls to earth. Genesis collected particles from the solar wind on exotic sheets of germanium and silicon among other materials. With the cost of the mission running into the hundreds of millions of dollars yet only collecting a sample of about four-tenths of a milligram, don’t expect to see solar wind particles on eBay anytime soon!
  Ulysses, a lesser-known mission is studying the Sun’s heliosphere and will characterize it as a function of solar latitudes. Ulysses will make it closest approach to Jupiter on February 4th and it's crossing of the ecliptic on July 14th.
  The MESSENGER spacecraft will begin its journey to the inside end of the solar system with a launch in May. Giant heat shields and tiny solar panels grace this intricate planetary observer. But the wait for a Mercury encounter will be a long one as MESSENGER’s first brush with the planet won't be till 2007 with orbit following two years later. But the wait is worth it since the only other spacecraft to ever visit Mercury was Mariner 10 back in 1975!
  The Mars Rover named Spirit will arrive on the red planet on January 3rd and its sister rover named Opportunity will arrive later this month on the 24th. The rovers each have a planned 90-day geologic study of the planet, but given the robustness of these rovers, my suspicion is that the initial three-month mission will balloon into a much longer extended mission. Most likely the rovers will continue to work until dust on their solar panels makes battery recharging impossible. The extended mission could be weeks or months depending upon the condition of the rovers and, of course, the Martian weather.
  On July 1st, the nuclear-powered behemoth named Cassini will arrive at Saturn begining its incredible 4-year study of the ringed planet and some of its larger moons. Actually, the bus-sized Cassini will begin its study of Saturn’s moon Phoebe in June on its way to orbit. By the way, did you know that Saturn has a density less than one? That means if you put it in a giant bathtub of water it would float. But of course…it would also….leave a ring!
  First, the spacecraft colorfully named Stardust will intercept Comet Wild-2 on January 2nd and collect a sample of dust that will return to earth in 2006. The precious particles will be captured and preserved in aerogel, the world’s least dense solid made up of over 99 percent air.
  Second, the Deep Impact mission will launch in December. Deep Impact is more or less a short, violent drive-by-shooting of comet Tempel 1. In what will be a spectacular collision on July 4th of 2005, the 370kg Deep Impact projectile will collide with the comet blasting a crater that is, according to NASA, “expected to range in size from that of a house to that of a football stadium, and two to fourteen stories deep.” No doubt a world record Independence Day fireworks show!
  Hayabusa (meaning falcon and formally named MUSES-C) is Japan's asteroid sample-return mission. Material from asteroid Itokawa will be collected after the spacecraft studies the small body for a while. Hayabusa began its 17-month journey last year and will arrive at Itokawa next year. The capsule containing the asteroidal material will return to earth in June of 2007.
The future of meteorites and meteorite science looks like a bright one for 2004. But as we all know the peril of space exploration ignores no one.

The “poor man’s space probes” so near and dear to our hearts will once again find themselves in the headlines. And for those of us who have been following meteorite science with more than a passing intimacy with the rocks themselves, we can sit back, smile, and know our world is much larger than most.

Happy New Year!

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