Satellites in the Sky

On September 30th, the Rosetta spacecraft crash landed on comet 67P. This might sound like a bad thing, but it was intentionally done by scientists at the European Space Operations Center after the spacecraft had recorded information about the comet for 2 years. It took 10 years to travel all the way through the solar system to the large comet, spent 2 years studying it, and now its mission is over. Twelve years might seem like a lot of time and effort to look at a comet, but the information learned from satellite missions like this one help us understand and predict the past and future of both our planet and the whole solar system!

Comets are mostly balls of ice, dust, and other complex molecules, and it has been hypothesized that a comet crashing into Earth millions of years ago may have been the original source of all the water on our planet. However, comets are difficult to study in space and the Rosetta mission was the first of its kind. During the two years that Rosetta observed and gathered data on comet 67P, we learned that comets were likely NOT the source of water on Earth. We saw geysers on the surface shoot dust and gas and learned that the comet is actually quite “fluffy” with 70% of the volume being empty space. We heard strange audio created by the magnetic fields in the trail of particles flying off the comet.

The importance of ambitious missions like Rosetta in understanding how planets form, what other planets look like, and especially how they change has never been more important. On our own planet, excessive atmospheric carbon from human activities is warming our oceans and changing global temperatures and weather patterns. For example, the number of severe hurricanes has gone up by 30% for every degree of global warming, and El Nino events have intensified. It is more important now than ever to have eyes in the sky watching for dangerous storms and monitoring atmospheric changes. This is where weather satellites come in!satellite-monitoring

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already have a number of satellites that continuously orbit the planet to record and report weather and climate data, but on November 4th of this year, a new geostationary (meaning it remains in the same place in the sky at all times) satellite called GOES-R will be launched into the skies above Earth’s western hemisphere. It will provide continuous imagery and atmospheric measurements, total lightning data, and space weather monitoring to provide critical atmospheric, hydrologic, oceanic, climatic, solar and space data. Read more about this special new satellite and its mission here.