Is there more for NASA to explore out there?
By Amanda Jermyn

Since its inception in 1958 NASA has launched a wide range of missions to explore the universe, and there are always more in the pipeline. Three potential missions have recently been selected for further study and NASA will choose one of them for launch in 2016. Each team will receive $3 million to design and develop its proposal, and the selected mission will be capped at $425 million, excluding the cost of the launch vehicle. This would be a relatively modest expenditure compared to the International Space Station missions. As of the end of this year the Space Shuttle program will have cost $174 billion, with an average cost of $1.3 billion per launch.

One of the three missions selected by NASA for possible launch in 2016 is the Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) which would study the structure and composition of the interior of Mars, aiming to advance understanding of the formation and evolution of rocky earth-like planets. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech would manage this project. To explore the interior materials of Mars from the crust to the core, the proposed Mars lander would carry a seismometer for measuring Mars quakes, a thermal probe to monitor heat flow within the planet, and a device to track variations in Marsís wobble.

Comet Hopper, another selected mission, would study the evolution of comets. A comet is a small, icy solar system object that, when close enough to the sun, displays a visible atmosphere called a coma, and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are due to the effects of the sunís radiation and solar wind on the nucleus of the comet. Comet nuclei are made of ice, dust and small rocky particles held loosely together by gravity. The mission would entail landing a spacecraft on comet 46P/Wirtanen multiple times and observing how it interacts with the sun. It would begin by examining the comet in the cold outer reaches of its orbit and watch its activity change as it moves closer to the sun. It would explore the surface of the comet as well as its innermost coma, the atmosphere just above the surface where frozen gases vaporize and, together with dust, stream away from the nucleus to form the cometís tail. NASAís Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland would manage this project.

The third contender is the Titan Mare Explorer (TIME) which would provide the first direct exploration of an extraterrestrial ocean by landing in an ethane-methane sea on Saturnís moon Titan. Johns Hopkins Universityís Applied Physics Laboratory would manage this project. The mission would examine the seaís chemistry, explore its depth and shorelines, and analyze weather patterns above it created by the cycling of methane. The landing craft would not be self-propelled, but would be pushed around the sea by wind for months. Ethane and methane are simple hydrocarbon molecules, but hydrocarbons can assemble themselves into complex structures such as those that form the basis of what we call life. With its liquid ethane and methane, and abundance of organic chemicals, Titan is a contender for some form of extraterrestrial life, another tantalizing reason to explore this celestial object.

While Stars over Springfield and Springfield STARS Club meetings are now on summer break watch out for the many stargazing events held in the area throughout the summer. On Friday July 8th at 9pm the Springfield STARS Club, in conjunction with the Agawam Parks and Recreation Department, will hold a stargazing program at the School Street Park in Agawam. A $5 per family donation is suggested. For more on summer stargazing see next monthís column. Enjoy the summer night skies!