NASA’s Robotic Year (and maybe Decade)


With the recent end of the Shuttle program, NASA, for the first time in its history since John Glenn orbited Earth, lacks the ability to send a man into space. There are no more Space Shuttles to serve as resuppliers to the ISS, and none of NASA’s other rockets have the capsules necessary to lift humans into orbit safely, let alone to dock with the ISS or travel to other planets. Russia, with its ancient Soyuz system, and China, with its new (but based on the Soyuz) Shenzhou system, are the only two countries that are capable of placing a human in orbit, with Russia serving as the only resupply point for the ISS until it is de-orbited

Simply put, America is behind in the manned space race, but she is certainly not behind in the unmanned one. NASA, with its ever proud robotic history, has a huge future planned for our silicon based friends. Before the end of 2011, NASA will have three more robotic missions to join the more than dozen already underway.


The Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, is a mission to the Moon with the primary goal of mapping the gravity of the Moon, much like GRACE has done to Earth. GRAIL consists of two identical spacecraft which shall orbit the Moon in tandem, 50 kilometers from the surface. The instruments aboard these spacecraft let NASA very carefully measure the change of relative velocity between the two orbiters, with an accuracy of a few tenths of a micron per second (or about 1.6 mm per hour). For reference, some plants grow faster than that. These things are crazy accurate.

Such precise data will allow for a very high resolution gravity map to be created, but what use is a gravity map? Well, from an accurate gravitational map, the internal lunar geology can be mapped, allowing us to understand the size and shape of the Moon’s internal structures, like its core, which in turn will give us insight into the formation and history of the moon. Since the Moon is almost entirely cool in its interior, an accurate geological history of the Moon will allow us to understand how solid planets change throughout their life and what major changes internal cooling will have upon them. Very useful stuff.

The scientific mission will last for 90 days, after the spacecraft will be left to impact the lunar surface. The launch is currently scheduled for September 9 of this year, with measurements beginning in May of 2012.


Next in the line of Martian explorers, Curiosity is a massive nuclear powered rover with a huge array of scientific instruments for analyzing Mars like never before. Curiosity has a mass of 900 kg, a length of 3 m, and carries 80 kg of scientific instruments, making her about the same size as a Mini Cooper. For reference, the original Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity each has a mass of 174 kg, were 1.57 m long, and carried a 6.8 kg scientific payload. Spirit and Opportunity were cool, Curiosity is awesome. The sheer amount of data that Curiosity can collect is immense, and the fact that she will be powered by a nuclear reactor removes many of the barriers that the first Mars rovers face, like power shortages, blocked solar panels, and having to hibernate during the Martian winter.

Not only is Curiosity awesome, but just take a look at her landing system. I won’t even try to describe it. It’s one hell of a landing system. Scheduled launch is between November 25 and December 18 of this year.

With any luck, Curiosity will pull an Opportunity and outlive its planned operational lifetime by more than we can even dream of. Her nuclear reactor will work at full capacity for a minimum of 14 years, after which the reactor will drop from producing 125 watts to 100 watts, so it will be possible for operations to continue, just at a more restricted rate. With any luck, the last images we get from Curiosity are those of an astronaut walking up to her and waving hello to everyone back home.


Some of you may be a bit more familiar with this probe, as the launch just happened a few days ago on August 5. Named after the wife of Jupiter, Juno is basically a weather satellite technician’s wet dream, except instead staring at Earth, Juno shall spend her life watching her husband, trying to peer through his clouds with her wide array of instruments. (I’m not sure what “peer through his clouds” insinuates, but they’re Roman, so we’ll let it slide.)

Starting in mid-2016, Juno will enter into a polar orbit over Jupiter, with the mission of finding out a hell of a lot more about Jupiter than we know right now, which really isn’t that much. From extensive telescopic observation, a lot of very good theories concerning Jupiter’s cloud movement and basic internal structure have been formed, but this is the first time that these theories will be put to the test.

Juno will be tasked with mapping Jupiter’s magnetic field, gravitational field and  internal structure. Of these, the internal structure is what I am most curious about because while we have basic working theories about the first two, everything about Jupiter’s core is unknown. It’s probably rocky, but we have no clue what size it is. It’s almost definitely sphere or obloid, because the immense pressure at the core wouldn’t allow for any non-symmetrical structures, like enormous mountain ranges. After saying that, I should also say that one of the most exciting things that could happen is discovering that the generally believed theories are just dead fucking wrong. If we find no evidence of a rocky core, that leaves us totally clueless as to how the gas could have even begun to condense and avoid forming around a rocky body.

Special Mention: James Webb Space Telescope

Congress, in their infinite wisdom, is thinking about pulling the plug on the JWST. This is quite literally one of the stupidest things they can do. The James Webb is the planned successor to the Hubble. $3 billion have already been spent on its construction. It’s an enormous international project, involving the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and NASA.

Most importantly, it is the future of astrophysics. Without this telescopic, astrophysics will slowly grind to a halt. We have nearly reached the maximum upper limit for telescope construction on Earth; we simply can’t make them much better. Space telescopes are what we need, and without them, good science can’t be done.

Send a letter (or many) to your Representative and Senator, they do actually factor those into their decision. If you want, you can just send the following.

Dear Representative/Senator [Slime-Ball-I-May-Or-May-Not-Have-Voted-For]

I, as one of your constituents, ask you to vote against the cutting of funding for the James Webb Space Telescope to be finished.

The James Webb Space Telescope is crucial to America’s scientific future, as it will help to inspire new scientists, promote scientific progress, and to allow our scientists to access to the greatest tool we can offer them, just as the Hubble has done for more than 2 decades.

A Very Pissed Off Voter

Just print that fucking thing out, sign it, stick it in a correctly addressed and stamped envelope, and mail it.

Even though the Space Shuttle is dead, and our next manned mission is a long way off, rest assured that NASA isn’t just sitting on their hands waiting for instructions.  They’re planning more and more robotic missions, as many as they have cash lying around for.

Some other missions currently underway are Cassini, Dawn, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,
MESSENGER, and New Horizons.

For a full list of active missions, click here.