Now that the final space shuttle has landed, many thousands involved with it have lost their jobs, and budget cuts loom, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the other projects NASA has been working on recently, and what will be keeping the agency busy in the coming years. There has been a flurry of discoveries and firsts just this year alone, as scientists have discovered a fourth moon around Pluto, and a spacecraft has entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta for the first time. Earlier this month the spacecraft Juno launched toward Jupiter, while workers prepared the next Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch by the end of this year. All of this on top of supporting existing missions to the sun, Mercury, Earth, Mars, Saturn and more. Collected here is just a small recent sampling of NASA's far-reaching projects and missions. [33 photos]
Rising from fire and smoke, NASA's Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Leaving from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, on August 5, 2011, the spacecraft will embark on a five-year journey to Jupiter. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core.
This animated sequence from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory AIA imager shows the evaporation of a sun-grazing comet as it disintegrated over about a 15-minute period on July 6, 2011. These observations made in extreme ultraviolet light show the comet's material interact with the corona of the Sun. The angle of the comet's orbit brought it across the front half of the Sun. It's not immediately obvious, but if you watch the movie closely, you'll see a line of light appear in the right just off the edge of the Sun and move across to the left. Given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely. The comet was probably a member of the Kreutz sun-grazer family.
The terminator of Mercury, shown here in color, is the line between light and dark, or day and night, seen here in an image from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft taken on June 7, 2011. On Mercury, three days are equivalent to two years, or in other words, the planet spins around its axis three times for every two orbits around the Sun. The first Mercury year of the MESSENGER mission ended on Monday, June 13, 2011. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #
A color image of Mercury's surface, seen by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft on June 26, 2011. Highlighted in this image are Basho, the dark-haloed crater at the top right of this scene, Kalidasa crater, the bright crater near the center, along with Tolstoj basin on the left, in beautiful color. Many different types of surface materials are found in this region, including crater rays, low reflectance material (LRM), and smooth plains within Tolstoj. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #
This astronaut photograph taken on June 11, 2011 highlights the nighttime appearance of the southern Italian Peninsula. The toe and heel of Italy's "boot" are clearly defined by the lights of large cities such as Naples, Bari, and Brindisi, as well as numerous smaller cities and towns. The bordering Adriatic, Tyrrhenian, and Ionian Seas appear as dark regions to the east, west, and south. The city lights of Palermo and Catania, Sicily, are also visible. The International Space Station (ISS) was located over an area of Romania, close to the capital city of Bucharest (approximately 945 kilometers to the northeast) at the time this image was taken. Part of a solar panel array on a docked Russian spacecraft is visible in the foreground.
This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, streaking through the Earth's atmosphere above clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background.
Testing continues on the next generation of manned spacecraft. This is the third water landing test of the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV), conducted at the Hydro Impact Basin located at NASA Langley Research Center in August of 2011. This scenario represented the worst-case scenario for landing. The prediction had a 50% chance of the test article becoming inverted. The Orion Project Team collects valuable data regarding Crew Module stability.
(NASA/Sean Smith) #
Nearly two months after ash and steam began spewing from a fissure in Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle Volcanic Complex, the volcano continued erupting. The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this natural-color image on July 31, 2011. A pale ash plume rises above erupting fissures, then fans out toward the north and east. The plume casts a shadow over the lava flow along the western (left) edge of the image. To the south of the plume, areas that have not been coated with lava sport instead a dendritic pattern of white snow and brown ash.
(NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, Robert Simmon, EO-1 team) #
Technicians at Astrotech's payload processing facility in Titusville, Florida, watch vigilantly as NASA's Juno spacecraft is tested for center of gravity, weighing and balancing on the rotation stand on June 16, 2011. Juno launched aboard United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5.
(NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
NASA's Juno planetary probe, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-551 launch vehicle, races past the clouds over Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to begin its five-year journey to Jupiter. The Juno spacecraft will make a five-year, 400-million-mile voyage to Jupiter, orbit the planet, investigate its origin and evolution with eight instruments to probe its internal structure and gravity field, measure water and ammonia in its atmosphere, map its powerful magnetic field and observe its intense auroras.
(NASA/Scott Andrews) #
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, named Curiosity, viewed on May 26, 2011, in Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The rover was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 22, 2011. The mission is scheduled to launch between November 25 and December 18, 2011, and land the rover Curiosity on Mars in August 2012. Researchers will use tools on Curiosity to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed.
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover (upper left, folded), is being prepared to be moved to a rotation fixture for testing. The spacecraft's backshell (right), will carry the parachute and several components used during later stages of entry, descent and landing. The backshell and the heat shield (previous image) combine to make a protective aeroshell for the rover. The module in the center is the Sky Crane, which will hold the rover inside the aeroshell, then, when it's very close to the Martian surface, it will fire its rockets, hovering, and slowly lower the rover to the ground.
(NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), one of three cameras to fly on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, launching in late 2011. MAHLI is a 2-megapixel RGB color CCD camera with a focusable macro lens mounted on an instrument-bearing turret on the end of Curiosity's robotic arm, with 8 GB non-volatile flash memory plus 128 MB volatile storage, and an ability to acquire 720p, ~7 Hz high-definition video. MAHLI's main job is to acquire color close-up images of rocks and surface materials in Curiosity's landing area.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems) #
NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The mission's rover will be placed on the ground in a northern portion of the crater in August 2012. This view of Gale is a mosaic of observations made by the Thermal Emission Imaging System camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Gale crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a layered mountain rising about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor. The ellipse superimposed on this image indicates the intended landing area. The portion of the crater within the landing area has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The lower layers of the nearby mountain -- within driving distance for Curiosity -- contain minerals indicating a wet history.
On March 3, 2011, engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, began the first phase of integrated system tests on a new robotic lander prototype at Redstone Test Center's propulsion test facility on the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal, also in Huntsville. These tests will aid in the design and development of a new generation of small, smart, versatile robotic landers capable of performing science and exploration research on the surface of the moon or other airless bodies, including near-Earth asteroids.
(NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham) #
NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six flight ready James Webb Space Telescope's (JWST) primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In July, 2011, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA proposed a 2012 spending bill that would terminate the JWST program as part of wider-reaching cutbacks. As budget talks continue, the future of the $6.5 billion heir to the Hubble Space Telescope remains uncertain, but the prospects appear bleak for it's planned 2018 launch.
(NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham) #
On June 10, 2011 NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft captured this dramatic sunrise view of Tycho crater on the Moon. The summit of the central peak is 2 km (6562 ft) above the crater floor, and the crater floor is about 4700 m (15,420 ft) below the rim.
(NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University) #
This series of images shows warm-season features that might be evidence of salty liquid water active on Mars. These images come from observations of Newton crater by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In time, the series spans from early spring of one Mars year to mid-summer of the following year. The features that extend down the slope during warm seasons are called recurring slope lineae. They are narrow (one-half to five yards or meters wide), relatively dark markings on steep (25 to 40 degree) slopes at several southern hemisphere locations. They appear and lengthen in the southern spring and summer from 48 degrees to 32 degrees south latitudes favoring equator-facing slopes. These times and places have peak surface temperatures from about 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 80 degree above zero Fahrenheit (about 250 to 300 Kelvin). Liquid brines near the surface might explain this activity, but the exact mechanism and source of the water are not understood.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona) #
A portion of the west rim of Endeavour crater, seen by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the 2,678th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars -- August 6, 2011. This crater, with a diameter of about 24 miles (22 km), is more than 25 times wider than any that Opportunity has previously approached during 90 months on Mars. Endeavour crater has been the rover team's destination for Opportunity since the rover finished exploring Victoria crater in August 2008. The ground in the foreground is covered with iron-rich spherules, nicknamed "blueberries," which Opportunity has observed frequently since the first days after landing. They are about 0.2 inch (5 millimeters) or more in diameter.
Windblown Mars. On Earth these wind-derived features are called 'blowouts', where the force of the wind has carved out a crescent shaped depression in soft, uncemented material like glacial loess. The features on Mars are much larger than the ones on Earth. Image taken in March of 2011, by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument on board NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
(NASA/JPL/Arizona State University) #
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 18, 2011. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body. The image was taken from a distance of about 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometers) away from Vesta. The smallest detail visible is about 1.2 miles (2.0 km).
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). After a year of orbiting Vesta, the next stop on Dawn's itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres.
A new moon for Pluto. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite -- temporarily designated P4 -- was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the dwarf planet. The new moon is the smallest discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is 746 miles (1,200 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km). P4 has now become a new target for NASA's New Horizons mission, a spacecraft en route to Pluto right now, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015.
Cassini snapped this image of Saturn's moon Helene while completing the spacecraft's second-closest encounter of the moon on June 18, 2011. This flyby yielded some of the highest resolution images of the moon to date. Lit terrain seen here is on the leading hemisphere of Helene (33 kilometers, 21 miles across). The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 7,000 kilometers (4,000 miles) from Helene. Image scale is 42 meters (137 feet) per pixel.
(NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) #
Saturn's rings interrupt this view of the planet's largest moon, Titan. Dark albedo features on Titan (5150 kilometers, 3200 miles across) and the moon's north polar hood are visible here. This view looks toward the southern, unilluminated side of the rings from just below the ringplane and toward the Saturn-facing side of Titan. North on Titan is up. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on May 12, 2011. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 2.3 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from Titan, and the scale is 14 kilometers (9 miles) per pixel.
(NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) #
The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This picture, captured on Feb. 25, 2011, was taken about 12 weeks after the storm began, and the clouds by this time had formed a tail that wrapped around the planet. Some of the clouds moved south and got caught up in a current that flows to the east (to the right) relative to the storm head. This tail, which appears as slightly blue clouds south and west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm head in this view. This storm is the largest, most intense storm observed on Saturn by NASA's Voyager or Cassini spacecraft.
(NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) #