While the Apollo astronauts took three days to reach the Moon, a trip to another planet in our solar system takes many months or many years. These travel times highlight the need to send robots instead of people to explore these distant worlds.
Here are a few examples of what some of our robot explorers are doing. After flying by Pluto last July, the New Horizons spacecraft is on course for a close encounter with another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019. Maybe this object will have a name by then. New Horizons is still sending back data it gathered during its flyby of Pluto. The Curiosity and Opportunity rovers continue to explore the surface of Mars while five robots study the planet from orbit. The Cassini spacecraft has begun to adjust its orbit around Saturn in preparation for its final year of operations. These adjustments will eventually send it between the innermost rings and the planet 22 times before it plummets into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017.
On July 4, the Juno spacecraft will enter orbit around Jupiter after a 5-year journey from Earth. Juno’s 16-month mission will help us better understand Jupiter’s interior structure, magnetic field and the composition of gases in the planet’s atmosphere. To accomplish these goals, Juno’s highly elliptical orbit will carry it over the poles with a closest approach of only about 3000 miles that take it inside Jupiter’s radiation belts.
Night Vision: Robotic Explorers is presented by Robert Bigelow on Thursday, June 30th in the Hansen Dome Theater at 6:45pm. Tickets available online or at the Clark Planetarium ticket desk. Free for members and $2 for everyone else.