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Last Updated on Monday, 30 January 2006 10:51
Published on Wednesday, 27 July 2005 00:00
This release contains a summary of some significant astronomical and space events that will be taking place during August, including the launch of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Perseid meteor shower and the launch of the UK's Topsat.


NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft will fly past the Earth on the evening (BST) of 2 August. This major gravity assist will send the spacecraft towards Venus on the next leg of its journey towards Mercury. Closest approach is expected to take place at 20.13 BST at an altitude of about 1,458 miles (2,347 km) over Mongolia in central Asia. The Earth flyby will be the first major adjustment to MESSENGER’s flight path.

The mission operations and science teams intend to calibrate several instruments – including the Magnetometer, Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer, and Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer – during approach and departure observations of Earth and the Moon. Observers with small telescopes in Japan, Eurasia and Africa will have the best chance to spot the spacecraft.

During a 4.9-billion mile (7.9-billion km) journey that includes 15 trips around the Sun, MESSENGER will fly past Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times before easing into orbit around its target planet. The upcoming Earth flyby and the Venus flybys, in October 2006 and June 2007, will use the pull of the planets’ gravity to guide MESSENGER toward Mercury’s orbit. The Mercury flybys in January 2008, October 2008 and September 2009 help MESSENGER match the planet’s speed and location for an orbit insertion manoeuvre in March 2011. The flybys also allow the spacecraft to gather data critical to planning a year-long orbit phase.

MESSENGER, short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, is the seventh mission in NASA's Discovery programme of lower cost, scientifically focused exploration projects. MESSENGER was launched from Cape Canaveral on 3 August 2004.

Mission web site:

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 10 August. The Atlas V rocket is scheduled to lift off between 12:54 and 14.54 BST, although the launch window lasts until 30 August.

This powerful launcher was chosen for its first planetary mission because it provides the performance needed to fly a large spacecraft to Mars in the 2005 launch period. Although the geometry of Earth and Mars orbits permits missions to be launched every two years, the 2005 mission is less favourable than 2003 and 2007. In addition, this spacecraft is heavier than most previous Mars missions.

MRO is scheduled to arrive at Mars in March 2006, when it will become the fourth operational spacecraft in orbit around Mars. It will use the planet’s thin atmosphere to aerobrake into its operational orbit at an altitude of about 300 km (186 ml) by September 2006.
During its two year primary science mission, MRO will conduct 8 different science investigations at Mars. The investigations are functionally divided into three purposes: global mapping, regional surveying and high resolution targeting of specific spots on the surface.

The main aim of the MRO mission is to seek out the history of water on Mars.
This will be accomplished by a suite of six science instruments, 3 engineering experiments that will assist in spacecraft navigation and communications, and 2 experiments to study the effects of the planet and its atmosphere on spacecraft motion. The instruments will zoom in to obtain the most detailed images of the Martian surface, analyse minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere and monitor the daily global weather.

UK scientists, from Oxford, Cardiff and Reading Universities, are involved in the Mars Climate Sounder instrument that will profile the planet’s atmosphere in order to determine the vertical variation in temperature, dust and water vapour concentration.

NASA MRO Web site:

PPARC press release:

The best-known annual meteor shower should reach its peak this year on the nights of 11 - 12 August, with good opportunities to see many meteors two to three days either side of these dates. The Perseids are produced by dust particles shed by comet Swift-Tuttle. They get their name from the constellation Perseus, from which the meteors seem to originate and radiate outwards. The shower, which is rich in fast, bright meteors, begins in late July and lasts for most of August. This year the first quarter Moon will set in late evening, leaving the sky dark for observers. In ideal conditions up to 80 meteors (or shooting stars) per hour may be seen.

BAA Meteor Section:

On 16 August, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev will surpass the record for most cumulative time spent in space by any person, having accumulated more than 748 days on six space flights. He is currently commander of the Expedition Eleven crew on board the International Space Station. He and NASA astronaut John Phillips were launched to the ISS on 15 April. They are expected to return to Earth in October.
Krikalev has made two visits to the Mir station, two Shuttle flights (including a visit to the ISS) and was a member of the first long-term crew to occupy the ISS in 2000. The previous endurance record holder was cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev, who racked up 747 days during three missions to the Mir space station.

Encyclopedia Astronautica:

The UK’s Topsat satellite is due for launch by a Cosmos rocket from Plesetsk in northern Russia on 25 August. Topsat is a technology demonstration satellite that has been built to demonstrate the ability to obtain high quality images with a low cost micro-satellite. The box-shaped satellite carries an innovative, compact optical system that can provide 2.5m resolution panchromatic and 5m multi-spectral imagery over a wide swath. Funded jointly by the British National Space Centre and the UK MoD, Topsat is part of the MOSAIC small satellite programme that was introduced in 2000 in order to help foster the UK’s world-leading capability in small satellites. It is one of three missions that use innovative new ways of demonstrating small satellite technology while opening up new and attractive markets for their use. Topsat is managed by a team of four UK organisations: QinetiQ, Surrey Satellite Technology, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Infoterra.

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This release contains a summary of some significant astronomical and space events that will be taking place during August. It has been written in order to assist the media in planning and researching future stories related to space science and astronomy, particularly those with UK involvement. It is not intended to be fully comprehensive. Dates and times may be subject to change.