The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft was launched in November 2013. MAVEN is intended to examine Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and will also serve as a data relay in Martian orbit. This will facilitate communication between Earth and NASA’s assets currently on the surface and in orbit around Mars. MAVEN is expected to reach Mars in September 2014.
In addition to astrophysics missions, several planetary exploration missions proceeded throughout 2013. These missions all focused on investigating other orbital bodies in the Solar System, whether through orbiting satellites or robotic landers.
Astronomers are laying the groundwork for a new generation of extraordinarily large observatories. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Telescope will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built. The SKA takes its name from the combined size of the collecting area of the thousands of individual dishes that comprise it, making it far more sensitive than any existing radio telescope.
Mars is attracting interest from other nations as well. India’s government announced in August 2012 that it approved plans for their country’s first mission beyond the Moon. The Mars Orbiter Mission, slated to launch in late 2013, will make India the ## to launch a mission to the Red Planet, after the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and China.
In August 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, carrying the Curiosity rover, landed on the surface of Mars. Curiosity carries ## science instruments with a total mass almost five times greater than the mass of either Spirit or Opportunity, NASA’s previous Mars rovers.
To improve the resolution from ground-based observatories and to capture light from distant, dim objects, telescopes are growing larger. Due to the correspondingly large cost of construction and operation, these massive telescopes are often supported financially by multinational consortia.
The second category of space and robotic exploration systems involves seeing the Universe through the eyes of a satellite. The advantage is that the satellite is able to capture images unaffected by the Earth’s atmosphere, enabling researchers to more accurately decipher the mysteries of the Universe.
Another type of space and robotic exploration systems involves samples and observations being collected by systems located on the surface of other bodies in the Solar System. Several missions are in development both by government and commercial entities.
Ground-based observatories are essential tools to aid astronomers in their study of objects that can be as close as our neighboring planets or billions of light years away. Scientists are always striving to study their subjects in detail, so they need to obtain the best possible images.