Suborbit, Saturn, and Mars

It sure has been an exciting year for space news, and things are just getting better and better:

  • SpaceshipOne has made Earth’s first manned private suborbital spaceflight, paving the way for future space travel outside the government’s space program. The “X-Prize” is not won yet, however, until the craft is able to lift off with three people aboard, attain suborbit, land safely, and do it again in two weeks. Problems in flight may delay that prize attempt.
  • Meanwhile, over Saturn, Cassini has flown by the icy moon Phoebe, and in two days will pass through Saturn’s ring plane as it falls into orbit around the majestic gas giant, there to stay for a four year tour. I’m especially looking forward to December, when the orbiter drops ESA’s “Huygens” probe into the thick, murky atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s most enigmatic moon.
  • Mars Rover Opportunity slowly descends into Endurance Crater, at risk of never being able to come out again; but the geologic data that should emerge from those steep, blueberry-strewn slopes should be well worth it.
  • Spirit, at the base of the Columbia Hills, examines a strangely shaped rock dubbed “Pot of Gold,” which, to my completely untrained eye looks like a frozen lava splatter, or sand fused by lightning.