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Delta 2 launches THEMIS
The United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket roared away from Cape Canaveral Saturday carrying a quintet of NASA probes that seek to understand the physics behind auroral displays.

 Full Coverage

STS-117: Astronauts meet the press
The STS-117 astronauts meet the press during the traditional pre-flight news conference held at the Johnson Space Center a month prior to launch. The six-person crew will deliver and activate a solar-power module for the International Space Station.


Atlantis rolls to pad
After a six-hour trip along the three-and-a-half-mile crawlerway from the Vehicle Assembly Building, space shuttle Atlantis arrives at launch pad 39A for the STS-117 mission.

 Roll starts | Pad arrival

Atlantis rollover
Space shuttle Atlantis emerges from its processing hangar at dawn February 7 for the short trip to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center's Complex 39.

 Leaving hangar | To VAB

Time-lapse movies:
 Pulling in | Sling

Technical look at
Project Mercury

This documentary takes a look at the technical aspects of Project Mercury, including development of the capsule and the pioneering first manned flights of America's space program.


Apollo 15: In the Mountains of the Moon
The voyage of Apollo 15 took man to the Hadley Rille area of the moon. Astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin explored the region using a lunar rover, while Al Worden remained in orbit conducting observations. "Apollo 15: In the Mountains of the Moon" is a NASA film looking back at the 1971 flight.


Skylab's first 40 days
Skylab, America's first space station, began with crippling problems created by an incident during its May 1973 launch. High temperatures and low power conditions aboard the orbital workshop forced engineers to devise corrective measures quickly. Astronauts Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin flew to the station and implemented the repairs, rescuing the spacecraft's mission. This film tells the story of Skylab's first 40 days in space.


Jupiter flyby preview
NASA's New Horizons space probe will fly past Jupiter in late February, using the giant planet's gravity as a sling-shot to bend the craft's trajectory and accelerate toward Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Mission officials describe the science to be collected during the Jupiter encounter during this briefing.


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Comet-bound probe enjoys close encounter with Mars

Posted: February 25, 2007

Europe's Rosetta comet probe shot past Mars early Sunday to line up for another swing by Earth later this year, putting the craft on course to reach its icy target in 2014.

Launched three years ago, Rosetta zoomed just 150 miles above the Martian surface at about 22,500 miles per hour relative to the Red Planet. The probe made its closest approach at 0215 GMT Sunday (9:15 p.m. EST Saturday) as it flew behind Mars and temporarily broke off communications with Earth.

Stunning image taken by the CIVA imaging instrument on Rosetta's Philae lander just four minutes before closest approach at a distance of some 620 miles from Mars. A portion of the spacecraft and one of its solar arrays are visible in nice detail. Beneath, an area close to the Syrtis region is visible on the planet's disk. Credits: CIVA / Philae / ESA Rosetta
Download larger image version here

Officials at the ESA Space Operations Center confirmed the speedy flyby was successful at 0257 GMT (9:57 p.m. EST Saturday) as telemetry from Rosetta began to again feed into the control room.

The Mars flyby created a slingshot-like effect for Rosetta, putting the spacecraft on a path to reach Earth on Nov. 13 for a similar maneuver.

"We actually use this flyby to slow down the spacecraft to optimize the Earth gravity assist," said Gerhard Schwehm, Rosetta project scientist.

Martian gravity was to have naturally slowed Rosetta by 4,900 miles per hour relative to the Sun, according to a European Space Agency statement.

Rosetta already completed a pass by Earth in 2005, and the craft will fly past Earth two more times later this year and in 2009 to set up for a rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early 2014.

By bouncing across the solar system to utilize natural gravity assistance, Rosetta saves precious fuel that would be necessary to send the probe on a direct route to its destination.

A suite of imaging instruments aboard Rosetta was commanded to observe the planet as the probe moved toward Mars, but the craft's payload systems had to be turned off about one hour prior to the flyby. Controllers were concerned Rosetta's batteries would be drained as the spacecraft passed behind Mars, which blocked the Sun's rays for about 25 minutes.

"Unfortunately, we will have to switch off the payload at closest approach as we will pass through an eclipse, a scenario Rosetta isn't built for," Schwehm said in an interview last week.

This image of Mars was taken by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on Saturday from a distance of about 150,000 miles, with an image resolution of about 5 km per pixel. Credits: ESA c 2007 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Download larger image version here

In 2003, concerns with the reliability of the Ariane 5 rocket needed to launch Rosetta forced engineers to scrap the mission's original plan, and officials were forced to choose a backup comet for the spacecraft's new destination.

The changes meant Rosetta would be subjected to more hazardous conditions during its voyage, including an unplanned eclipse during its swing by Mars, according to ESA.

Rosetta's huge solar panels span nearly 100 feet tip-to-tip to gain efficiencies in power production in the outer solar system. The craft will be the first to fly beyond the asteroid belt and rely entirely on solar power.

Schwehm, also head of ESA's Solar System Science Operations Division, said Rosetta's primary optical and infrared camera could have achieved an image resolution of about 12 feet as the craft swooped in for its closest approach.

Despite the need to shut down Rosetta's powerful instruments, scientists still expected to get unique science opportunities from the flyby. The probe was to have downlinked the first ultraviolet measurements from near Mars, Schwehm said.

Atmospheric structures can be seen in this image of Mars taken by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on Saturday from a distance of about 150,000 miles. Credits: ESA c 2007 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Download larger image version here

Rosetta's optical and infrared camera, ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, and visible and infrared thermal imaging spectrometer conducted about four hours of extensive observations of Mars late Saturday before being prepared for the dangerous eclipse period. A package of plasma sensors also worked to observe the environment around the Red Planet.

The instruments were turned back on to gather more data as Rosetta sped away from Mars Sunday.

The flyby was also the first opportunity for Rosetta's 220-pound lander to conduct independent science observations. Imaging systems and a plasma monitor were kept on during the eclipse because the lander has its own power system, according to an ESA statement.

The lander's camera captured spectacular images of Rosetta and Mars as the probe skimmed just above the planet's atmosphere.

Called Philae, the tiny craft will be dropped onto the nucleus of Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014 for several weeks of experiments. Philae carries nine science instruments and a small drill to retrieve samples from below the comet's surface.

Rosetta will orbit Churyumov-Gerasimenko for more than a year of extensive science operations to observe the comet's changes as it approaches the Sun.