One mission ends, another continues discoveries

After 17 years, four times its expected mission lifetime, the Ulysses spacecraft is only a few weeks away from ending its exploration of the sun.

According to Ed Smith, Ulysses project scientist at JPL, the main objective of the spacecraft was to study “from every angle, the heliosphere, which is the vast bubble in space carved out by the solar wind.” He credits Ulysses with redefining the knowledge of the heliosphere and “our solar neighborhood.”

The spacecraft has flown over the sun’s poles three times. The study of the poles were important because many scientists believe they are central to the ebb and flow of the solar system. Ulysses was the first mission to survey the environment in space above and below the poles of the sun in the four dimensions of space and time. It showed the sun’s magnetic file is carried into the solar system in a more complicated manner than previously believed.

After traveling 8.6 billion kilometers (5.4 billion miles) Ulysses’ power is weakened to the point where thruster fuel will soon freeze in the spacecraft’s pipelines.

That is expected to occur around July 1.

As Ulysses ends its journey of exploration, the Phoenix Mars’ lander is still at the beginning of its discoveries. The lander arrived at the northern pole of Mars on June 1. Since then it has sent back photos of the red planet that have done exactly what scientists and engineers had hoped—create more questions.

After a few days of shaking soil, a sample was finally distributed into a waiting on board oven, one of eight, and is now going through a process of experiments. As of mid-week the oven had heated the soil twice, once to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and again at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We saw no water coming off the soil,” said William Boynton, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. “But it is what we expected.”

Boynton explained that scientists were not surprised that they found no ice in the sample because the soil had been sitting out in the sun for a few days before it finally crumbled into small enough pieces to filter through the screen in front of the TEGA oven.

On June 12, the lander’s robotic arm dug into two trenches called “Dodo” and “Goldilocks” which then created one large trench now called “Dodo-Goldilocks.” This exposed more white soil that scientists are keeping a close eye on. The arm disposed some of the white soil, scientists think may be ice, in an area alongside the trench. They will be watching it over a number of days to see if there is any change in shape or melting.

In the meantime the TEGA oven will continue to heat the soil sample to the maximum of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and the data will be relayed to scientists next week.


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