NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has achieved Hermian orbit and has sent back the first photograph of Mercury from Orbit, an image that shows an Debussy crater with ejecta rays. In the first six hours after orbital insertion, MESSENGER took more than 360 images. It will be photographing portions of Mercury not captured by three previous flyby missions. MESSENGER main science mission, which includes a complete surface mapping, is expected to begin on April 4.
The Stardust probe, which was launched in 1999 to study the asteroid 5535 Annefrank and Comet Wild 2, was shut down by NASA on March 24. In addition to its primary mission, which ended when a capsule of dust from Comet Wild were returned to Earth, Stardust had a flyby of Comet Tempel 1 earlier this year to follow-up on the mission of the 2005 Deep Impact probe. Before shutting down, Stardust notified NASA of its remaining fuel to help gauge consumption of future missions and then burned off 146 seconds worth of fuel.
The Space Shuttle Discovery completed its final mission at 11:57 AM ET on March 9, 2011. Discovery has flown 39 missions since it was first launched at 12:41 PM on August 30, 1984. Discovery has spent 365 days in space traveling 148,221,665 miles in 5,830 orbits. On its final mission, Discovery was crewed by Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Eric Boe, Steven Lindsey, Michael Barratt, and Steve Bowen
NASA has cleared Discovery for its final launch on Thursday, February 24 at 4:50 pm. Discovery is the most traveled manned spacecraft in history, having traveled nearly 143 million miles in its 38 missions since its first launch in 1984. This mission will take Discovery to the International Space Station.
The Stardust-NExT probe flew to within 112 miles of Comet Tempel I on February 14, taking a series of photos of the comet. Comet Tempel had previously been visited by a NASA spacecraft in 2005, when Deep Impact collided with the comet. This is the first time a comet has been revisited after a complete orbit. Photos have shown that erosion has changed the face of the comet, but the impact crater left by Deep Impact appears to have partially healed itself.
A small asteroid (2011 CQ1) discovered on February 3, passed around 7,500 miles from Earth on February 4 at 19:40 UT. This is about a quarter of the distance that 2010 TD54 passed by the Earth in October. 2011 CQ1 is between 1 and 2 metres across, making it smaller than a standard sofa. Had the asteroid hit Earth, it would have vaporized in the atmosphere.
Mark Kelly, whose wife Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a public meeting on January 8, has confirmed that he will command the final scheduled flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, currently scheduled for an April 19 launch. Kelly has flown three previous shuttle missions and his brother is currently on the ISS.
United Space Alliance has proposed the Commercial Space Transportation Service, which would keep two orbiters in the space shuttle fleet, Atlantis and Endeavour active and flying two missions each year from 2013 through 2017 while the United States gets a new generation of manned launch vehicles ready. NASA has not officially commented on the USA plan and is publicly stating that the current plans to send the three orbiters to museums.
Results from the first four months of observation from the Kepler space observatory have been released indicating the discovery of more than 1200 potential planets, including 165 Jupiter-class planets, 662 Neptune-class planets, 288 superEarth class planets, and 68 Earth-class planets, 54 of which are considered to be in the habitable zone. Kepler has been searching a portion of the sky that includes the constellation Cygnus and Lyra and looked at 156,000 stars during the period covered by the released data.