Awesome Mercury Mission Ends (And A Ceres Guessing Game)

And yet another space probe:  NASA’s “Messenger” spacecraft will end it’s voyage today with a crash landing on Mercury.  Like the other spacecraft in the news this year, Messenger has been a long, slow mission, slinging around the Solar system, and visiting Earth and Venus before swooping by Mercury three times.  I love these elegant, low energy trajectories!

Among other interesting findings, Messenger discovered ice in deep cracks on Mercury, demonstrating that there is a huge range of conditions on the surface of the tidal locked planet.

Of course, unlike the outer solar system, there is no shortage of sunlight near Mercury.  In fact, the spacecraft needed to be well shielded.  But Messenger also employed the solar wind and solar sails to help guide and propel the spacecraft, saving fuel (and just beinge awesome about it).  Cool!

Meanwhile, in another part of the solar system….

The Rosetta project released a large batch of images captured last fall. These are NAVCAM images, so they are good for movies and posters but have only a little value as data.

I’m sure we’ll get lots of data eventually, but ESA is working hard to publish the data.

Back on Earth,  JPL is trying to rev up interest in the Dawn spacecraft, orbiting Ceres. So far, the most interesting thing we’ve seen at some unexplained bright spots.

While the spacecraft is collecting more data about the dwarf planet and the bright spots, we can only guess what they are.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, JPL is “gamifying” this guessing game, and attempting to do a social media “thing”, to keep people interested.

What’s the spot on World Ceres?” is an interactive “poll”, which invites everyone to record a guess.  The choices offered cover the most plausible guesses from scientists (along with may favorite,  “other”).


I’m all in favor of engaging public interest in science of all types, and this page is the germ of a good idea. But really, this isn’t representative of how science works, or what we mean to be teaching people. Figuring out Ceres isn’t a popularity contest, and thousands of people making uninformed guesses is pointless.

What I would like to see is for each of the buttons link to a short, coherent summary of the arguments pro and con. Before you vote, you can read the “voter’s guide”—and learn what we do and don’t know about asteroids.

Furthermore, there should be a “what it means if this is true” section. For example, if the spots are due to volcanism, this means there must be a liquid interior. What would that imply about the history and structure of Ceres?

And so on.

Finally, everyone who votes should be able to sign up to get updates on data and analysis as they come in, and a special report (“suitable for framing”) on what is ultimately concluded.



Space Saturday

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