Some say that we now live in the golden age of solar system exploration. In 2016 there are more than 15 active, interplanetary probes from the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, India, and Russia. These are exploring Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Earth’s Moon, comets, asteroids, the distant Kuiper Belt, and the even more distant, interstellar medium.
There’s way too much to cover in a short feature, so we’ll focus on one mission, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which we will call just “67P”, for short. The Rosetta Mission ended on September 30 with a controlled crash into 67P, after orbiting that Comet for 2 years. Rosetta also deployed a small landing craft to the Comet. From Rosetta, scientists have learned that 67P is an ancient “leftover” from the outer solar system. They also found that the Comet contains the amino acid, glycine, molecular oxygen, and phosphorous, all of which are important ingredients for life. However, isotopic ratios in the Comet’s water are very different from such ratios in Earth’s water, indicating that Earth’s water was not sourced from comets like 67P. In short, the chemical ingredients for life may be very widespread in our solar system.
What’s next? The European-Russian Exo-Mars Trace Gas Orbiter is set in coming months to analyze components of the Martian atmosphere, including methane, a possible indicator of microbial life. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return mission is now en route to the asteroid, Bennu, while the Japanese Hayabusa 2 sample return mission is heading toward asteroid, Ryugu. And, NASA’s New Horizons probe, which flew past Pluto in 2015, continues on its way to a small object far beyond Pluto that New Horizons will encounter on January 1, 2019. After that, New Horizons will join 4 other NASA spacecraft that are escaping our solar system, destined to wander the Milky Way Galaxy forever.
Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Art Trevena.