Friday, January 24, 2014

Ten Years!

Ten years ago, the rover Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars. It was expected to last at least 90 Martian days. At this point, it's lasted about forty times that long, and looks to be good for still more.

In the ten years Opportunity has been on station, we've gathered an immense amount of data, and made several amazing discoveries. Some of them have been confirmations of things long suspected, others took us by surprise. Ten years ago, it was still an open question whether or not water had ever flowed on Mars; now, it's proven fact. Ten years ago, it was highly speculative to say that Mars ever had the necessary conditions for life. Now, while it's not proven for sure yet, the facts are lining up in favor. Between them, Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity have been chipping away at the unknowns, revealing a world more complex that we'd imagined, with a richer past than we'd suspected.

In other recent news, we turn our eyes outward to the Asteroid Belt. European scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered something surprising about the dwarf planet Ceres. It seems that it periodically ejects plumes of water. While we'd suspected that Ceres was at least partially made of ice, this provides confirmation. Fortunately for us, the Dawn spacecraft is already on its way, having left Vesta a while back.

You know, this makes me feel sorry for poor New Horizons.

When New Horizons launched, it was a mission to fly by the farthest known planet, Pluto. While enroute, Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet. Which was still OK, since New Horizons would still be the first mission to a dwarf planet, right? Um, no. Turns out that while New Horizons will fly by Pluto in July of 2015, Dawn will reach Ceres in January.

Some people just can't buy a break.

Anyway, it's wonderful to know that we can still build things that last. Voyager, launched way back in 1977, still checks in regularly with Earth. Opportunity still soldiers on after ten years driving around in the Martian dust. And just next year, we'll get our first close-up views of not one, but two dwarf planets.

These are great days, ladies and gentlemen. And we've barely begun.

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