Space Exploration Chronology: 2000 - 2009 | Spirit & Opportunity | Huygens on Titan | Phoenix on Mars | Kepler Mission



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2004

Spirit & Opportunity land on Mars. NASA boosts exploration of the Red Planet with two rovers.


Click on the image to enlarge it
Credit: Courtesy of NASAimages.org


Mission launched Spirit: June 10, 2003
Opportunity: July 7, 2003
Destination reached Spirit: January 4, 2004
Opportunity: January 25, 2004
Objectives Study rock and soil samples for 90 days, expanding our understanding of the martian past. Determine what geologic and mineralogic processes shaped the planet. Confirm findings made by orbiters, proving or disproving their effectiveness and accuracy. Establish whether ancient wet environment was suitable for life as we know it.
Science instruments: Panoramic camera, miniature thermal emission spectrometer, Mossbauer spectrometer, alpha proton X-ray spectrometer, microscopic imager
Results Both rovers far exceeded their expected mission duration, by 2010 they have been operating for over 2,400 days. Strong evidence of ancient more Earth-like, wet Mars found, supporting findings made by the Pathfinder in 1997. Minerals found just below the surface that were formed in contact with liquid water. Overall understanding of martian surface is now, according to NASA scientists, no longer an enigma. In March 2010 Spirit rover went permanently offline and is no longer operated. Opportunity rover persists to explore Mars against all odds.



No one could have predicted that the two Mars rovers, launched in 2003, intended for a 90 day mission, would endure for six years. They have reached more distant destination on Mars than was conceived possible. The rovers solidified the theory, now universally accepted, that an ancient Mars was a wet world, with liquid water oceans and possibly even with life forms, as human beings understand it. The method of deliverance and landing was adopted from the previous Pathfinder mission, which can be found under the year of 1997. Spirit and Opportunity utilized a more sophisticated artificial intelligence necessary for navigating themselves around the rocky and, often, treacherous, surface. They did not, however, possess instruments necessary for determining whether there is life on Mars today, instead they focused on locating evidence of ancient conditions suitable for life then.

Opportunity took this breathtaking image of Victoria crater in 2006. Click on it to view in full resolution.

While the Spirit rover has stopped responding Opportunity continues to make it way across the martian landscape, perpetually breaking its own record of going farther on Mars than anything before it. Both rovers had opened up Mars to the scientific community and the curious public in a way that had transformed it from a distant, alien world, into a familiar place. A world that is destined to turn humanity into interplanetary species.*

Special on Spirit Rover, made in 2010. Can be played in HD.


Special on Opportunity Rover, made in 2010. Can be played in HD.



After Spirit Rover went offline in 2010, NASA released the following visual compilation of various accomplishes of the rover, in its commemoration. This is but a fraction of 124,000 images that were returned by the Spirit rover from Mars. Enjoy this video in High Definition quality:

Click here for additional, external information



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2005

First landing in the outer Solar System
ESA probe Huygens descends onto Saturn's moon, Titan



Click on the image to view in full resolution. Credit: NASA

Mission launched October 15, 1997 on board NASA Cassini spacecraft
Destination reached January 14, 2005
Objectives Arrive safely at Titan, descend through its atmosphere and land. Measure pressure, temperature, transparency of the atmosphere. Take panoramic images.
Results Safe arrival and landing. Huygens transmitted data from the surface for 90 minutes, which was longer than expected. Roughly half of all data was lost due to software error. The probe landed on the bottom of a dry lake, filled with round pebbles, possibly from erosion, probably composed of water ice. Images during the descent confirmed recent activity of liquid substances on the surface in forms of channels and lakes. Despite landing in a dry lakebed, probability of liquid being present on the surface elsewhere remained high (now confirmed). Huygens revealed geological features and processes present on Titan that share striking resemblance to those on Earth. Whatever liquid exists on Titan, is in a ford of liquid methane, not water. Atmosphere was discovered to be dynamic and multilayered. Huygens, together with its NASA mothership Cassini established that there are liquid methane showers (rain) on Titan, that occurs in a periodical fashion. Thus, a climate that bears resemblance, in some ways, to Earth. Titan also has few visible craters, much like Earth, due to its thick atmosphere and erosion processes.


European Space Agency designed and built the Huygens probe, which was attached to the NASA Cassini spacecraft in 1997, when both were launched. The mission came to be known as Cassini-Huygens. Cassini is an orbiter, studying Saturnian system from space, it will remain operational until, at least, 2017. Huygens became the most distant scientific outpost ever established by mankind on a surface of extraterrestrial body. Confirmation of Titan's geologic and weather activities redefined our expectations of what may exist in the outer Solar System. Titan is a cold environment, where liquid water cannot exist, yet it has liquid lakes of methane. Titan remains to be a mysterious world that is just now beginning to be revealed. The Solar System is not as dead, as was thought in the 1970's. Future missions may include a floating laboratory on one of Titan's lakes and a flying balloon, taking advantage of the thick atmosphere.

Vision of Titan's surface. Image credit: Steven Hobbs (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia).


Possibility of life on Titan is not ruled out. The conditions present on Titan, according to some scientists, are similar to those in primordial Earth. Numerous hypothesis exist for a type of life that could have evolved on the surface or below, including a methane-consuming life forms, dwelling in liquid-methane lakes.


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2008

NASA spacecraft Phoenix successfully landed on Mars, exploring Martian arctic region for the first time


Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Mission launched August 4, 2007
Destination reached May 25, 2008
Objectives Land in the arctic region of Mars. Study composition of arctic soil. Reveal origins and legacy of water on Mars. Learn whether the environment is suitable for simple, living organisms.
Results Presence of water ice on Mars is confirmed. Ice is located few inches below the surface. Snowfall based on water ice detected, expanding our understanding of the Martian climate. Confirmed presence of chemicals necessary for sustainable life of some bacteria found on Earth. Abundance of resources is discovered that, potentially, can be utilized to supply oxygen and rocket fuel for human future explorers and colonists.

Can be played in HD
Phoenix mission did not receive as much media coverage as it should have. Perhaps because the public has become accustomed to streams of photographs from Mars thanks to the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions. However, the discoveries made by Phoenix were nothing short of extraordinary: It has put an end to the debate whether there is water on Mars, which it had detected in the form of water ice. Phoenix detected complex weather conditions in the form of water-based snowfall generated in the Martian clouds. There is no question that life can, potentially, exist on Mars today. There are chemical components which are necessary for simple Earthling bacteria to survive, by utilizing them as a food source.*

In an unprecedented observation, landing of the Pheonix spacecraft was imaged by a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an imaging NASA spacecraft that studies Martian surface from the planetary orbit. We are happy to show you this image:


Credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org


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2009

NASA launches Kepler Mission: Search for Earth-like worlds


Click on the image to enlarge it
Credit: Courtesy of NASAimages.org


Mission launched March 6, 2009
Destination reached April 7, 2009
Objectives Find extrasolar planets (outside our Solar System) of similar size to Earth (0.5 to 2.0 x Earth), of rocky composition (like Earth), in habitable zone, which translates to an Earth-like planet, potentially capable of supporting liquid water and life as we know it. Remain operational for 3.5 years.
Results 7 exoplanets confirmed, including one planetary system. Over 700 exoplanet candidates detected, detailed analysis required to confirm them. Preliminary calculations by the Kepler team speculate that 100,000,000 habitable worlds exist in our Galaxy.



The Kepler is the first telescope deployed in space for a specific purpose of seeking extraterrestrial worlds that resemble our own. It measures the slight dimming of a star as a planet passes in front of it, this method is called transit. While Kepler is designed to seek out Earth-like worlds, it is not limited to them. So far, every confirmed planet by Kepler is either a gas giant or an ice giant.

The list of candidate planets, however, indicate that hard-surface (rocky) planets are very common in our Galaxy (The Milky Way). The Kepler is also unique in a way that it is monitoring a broad section of the Galaxy. The field of view is estimated to contain approximately 6.5 million stars. Kepler's camera has 96,000,000 megapixels. The habitable zone, which is where an Earth-like planet would be located, is an area around a star where a planet can support liquid water on its surface, meaning: it is neither too hot nor too cold. Mass is important because low mass results in atmosphere escaping into the vastness of space, while too much mass retains much hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe, resulting in a gas giant planet, like Jupiter.

Kepler's field view in perspective of our galaxy:


Click on the image to view in full resolution. Credit: NASA

More specifically, the Kepler is capable of measuring the following about exoplanets: orbit dimensions (whether in habitable zone or not), mass, size, temperature. All of which are vital to determine whether a moderate climate is present on the surface.

Among Kepler's objectives is to determine frequency at which various types of planets can be found in our galaxy. In addition, it studies planetary systems, their stars, including multiple star systems and their interactions.


January 2011 update on the Kepler mission:

Click here for additional, external information


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Sources
  1. University of Arizona: Phoenix Mars mission
  2. NASA JPL: Mars Rover Mission
  3. List item 3
  4. List item 4

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