Some Coming Attractions: two comets and a dwarf planet

It’s been a while since I put a post together. I thought some of the space exploration highlights to come were worth a note, so here are a few I’m watching develop.

In August of 2014 we’ll be treated to something pretty exciting: a spacecraft is due to go into orbit around a comet. The European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” probe has already done amazing things flying past two asteroids. In August it will be lined up to be captured by the feeble gravity of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After several weeks of distance observations, the probe will release a little lander named Philae that should touch down on the comet in November.

This October there will be a real “nail-biter” in orbit over Mars. A comet discovered last year by an observatory in Australia, called C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, will come no where near the earth. However, on 1 October it will swing past Mars – very close to Mars, in fact. Mars is, of course, being closely observed by all sorts of spacecraft. NASA currently has two orbiters in action around the Red Planet, and another is on the way. Comets have been described as “dirty snowballs” and this one is expected to be shedding little chunks of rocky dust as it swings past Mars, exposing the spacecraft from earth to a concentrated rain of debris travelling multiple miles per second.  Spacecraft controllers have been working hard to keep their charges safe – but it’s uncharted territory.

In a year’s time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first close-up recognizance of Pluto. Whether or not you like to think of Pluto as a small planet or a very large Kuiper Belt Object, it’s fascinating territory and the last major body within the “inner” Solar System to have that we’ve never seen close up.