The MESSENGER spacecraft has just made its third flyby of Mercury, passing over just 228 kilometers away from the surface. It takes a lot of energy to directly get from Earth orbit to Mercury orbit, so MESSENGER has been making multiple flybys of Mercury. During each flyby, the planet is used as a gravity assist so that the spacecraft can achieve Mercury orbit with much less fuel. This is the final flyby of Mercury, and MESSENGER will start orbiting Mercury and studying the planet in March, 2011.
Now that MESSENGER has made its third flyby, we just need to wait for the spacecraft to send the data and have it processed for more cool images of Mercury ...
LCROSS was going to crash into crater Cabeus A. But after analyzing data from spacecraft such as the LRO, the Lunar Prospector, Chandrayaan-1, and Kaguya, the impact site for LCROSS has been changed to Cabeus (proper), a bigger crater close to Cabeus A. This determination was made because the hydrogen content and terrain suggests that crashing into Cabeus rather than into its satellite crater would give the best chance of observing water in the resulting plume.
The Clementine and Lunar Prospector spacecraft had detected lots of hydrogen on the Moon, which strongly argued for the existence of water. Traces of water was also found in moon rocks brought back by the Apollo mission. However, the detected hydrogen might have been from sources other than water or could just be unattached protons from the solar wind that somehow managed to stick to the Moon, and the water in the moon rocks might have been from contamination when they were brought back to Earth, so the existence of water on the Moon has continued to be in question.
As part of the International Year of Astronomy, some people came up with the idea of the Galileoscope™, which would be a telescope cheap enough to provide for every child. And at $20 per scope, it really is quite affordable. If you had wanted a telescope but couldn't afford one, this might be a nice one to have. And even if you don't want or need one, you could donate $15 per scope for children around the world to help promote science education. In fact, I have just donated funds for a couple myself.
The Planck spacecraft launched in May will give us much more detailed maps of the cosmic microwave background than ever before. So it is good news that its first light survey over a narrow strip through the sky indicates that its instruments are all working very well. The first light survey would probably not give us any exiting scientific results, but its success bodes well for its future. We could be looking towards tremendous discoveries in cosmology after the end of 2012, which is when Planck's data from the cosmic microwave background will be released.
Random musings in a variety of subjects, from science to religion.