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NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space

Nov 25, 2011 (03:11 AM EST)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=232200131


NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is due to launch on Nov. 26 from Kennedy Space Center. Slated to arrive in August at the red planet, the spacecraft's Curiosity rover will roam the surface, taking samples and sending data back to Earth for analysis.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden told Congress in November that the future of human space exploration requires the development of technologies that allow astronauts to "go farther and faster into space and at lower cost." Following the July conclusion of the 30-year Space Shuttle Program, the Mars Science Lab is among more than a dozen such initiatives that represent the next chapter in space exploration.

Mars has long been a favorite target of NASA's. The Mariner 4 spacecraft transmitted the first close-up photos of Mars in 1965. In January 2004, the space agency launched "twin" rovers to determine the history of water on Mars and perform other scientific investigations.

Scientists want to determine whether there's evidence of life on Mars. The Curiosity rover is equipped with instruments that will search for signs of minute, microbial life forms.

In his testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Space, and Transportation, Bolden outlined NASA's next steps in human space exploration. The goal, he said, is to go beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations such as "asteroids, the Moon, and eventually Mars."

The plan puts growing emphasis on the privatization of space transportation, for both unmanned cargo delivery to the International Space Station and eventually passenger flights. Boeing, Blue Origin, Paragon Space Development, Sierra Nevada, and United Launch Alliance are among the companies that have received NASA funding for such projects.

NASA's own big bet is a spacecraft that combines the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle with the Space Launch System, which is designed to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo 17 Moon mission in 1972. However, it will be 10 years before astronauts take Orion and SLS for a test flight.

Take a closer look at the Orion and other spacecrafts and technologies that NASA is counting on for its deep space push, in our visual tour. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech




An artist's rendering of the Curiosity rover, launched in November 2011 to investigate Mars' ability to sustain microbial life. The rover's arm extends 7 feet, with instruments to examine rocks and a drill for taking soil samples. The mast supports a camera for stereo viewing and a laser that vaporizes rocks to determine their composition. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, produced this colorful, high-res topographical map of the moon, released in November, 2011. LRO's job is to conduct research for future lunar exploration, including identifying landing sites and resources, such as ice. LRO's instruments return images of the Moon, along with topography and temperature measurements. The spacecraft carries a microchip with the names of 1.6 million people who responded to a space agency initiative to "send your name to the Moon."

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NASA describes Orion, designed to explore deep space, as "the most advanced human spacecraft ever built." The Orion multipurpose crew vehicle (MPCV) undergoes testing at Lockheed Martin facilities in Denver, Colo. The MPCV comprises a launch abort system, crew module, and service module for in-space propulsion, water, and oxygen. Image credit: NASA

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Orion's multipurpose crew vehicle on display at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. Reminiscent of an Apollo-era space capsule, the MPCV will ride atop the Space Launch System, and it's designed to support a crew of four for three weeks and ultimately up to six months of space travel. Image credit: NASA

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The Space Launch System, the next chapter in the space program after the Space Shuttle, will be used in combination with the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle to carry its crew into Earth's orbit and beyond. This artist rendering shows the SLS's liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, used for the first phase of launch, and the J-2X engine for the latter stage. The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017. Credit: Artist Rendering/NASA

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The Space Launch System's mobile launcher undergoes structural testing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. With a 47-foot-tall base, the launcher features a 355-foot-high gray, steel tower. The structure still needs to be modified for fueling, venting, electricity, communications, and crew access to the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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The Juno spacecraft set off in August 2011 on a five-year journey to Jupiter, where it will orbit the planet to study its interior structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere. Lockheed Martin was the manufacturer, and the Italian Space Agency contributed scientific equipment. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing the mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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A Delta II rocket launches NASA's Dawn spacecraft in 2007 from Cape Canaveral. Nine solid-fuel boosters ring the base of the rocket. NASA describes Dawn as being a "journey to the beginning of the solar system." Dawn is on its way to the so-called asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Photo credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph and Rafael Hernandez

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The Dawn mission will study the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, which scientists believe date to the early history of the solar system. The mission seeks to shed light on the processes that contributed to the formation of the solar system. In this artist's rendering, Dawn is propelled by ion thruster engines. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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NASA's NuSTAR observatory, due to launch in February 2012, is readied for testing at an Orbital Sciences facility in Virginia. The mission will deploy telescopes that are capable of capturing images in the "high energy X-ray" area of the electromagnetic spectrum. As it orbits Earth, NuSTAR (short for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) will record regions of the sky. Credit: NASA JPL

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A 30-foot mast separates NuSTAR's optics modules (right) from detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft and solar panels are with the focal plane. In this rendering, the background is the Galactic center of the Milky Way. NuSTAR will study black holes, supernovas, cosmic rays, and more. Credit: NASA JPL

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The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, due to launch in 2013, will explore the upper atmosphere of Mars in an effort to get a better understanding of the evolution of its climate. It will measure the rate of escape of compounds from Mars' atmosphere and use that information to extrapolate backwards in time. An artist's concept shows MAVEN orbiting Mars. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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NASA's Aquarius observatory, launched in June 2011, produced this map of the salinity of Earth's oceans. Technologies on board include an optical camera, thermal camera, microwave radiometer, and other sensors. The data collected will be used to assess global rainfall, ocean currents, and climate. The image shows, for example, higher salinity in the Atlantic Ocean than in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech

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The International Space Station, launched in 2000 with Expedition 1, continues to be a mainstay of the space program, with new expeditions delivering crew members and equipment every few months. Expeditions 30, 31, 32 are scheduled to take place between December 2011 and May 2012. In this photo, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, a flight engineer on Expedition 31/32, participates in a spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in a lab at Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

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NASA's newest humanoid robot was put to work on the International Space Station in October 2011. Robonaut 2, built in partnership with General Motors, is the first such robot to fly in space. It has a torso, head, arms, and hands, but no legs or feet. Robonaut 2 is designed to help humans in complex tasks. It even tweets at twitter@astrorobonaut. Credit: NASA

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NASA is working with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Orbital Sciences, and a half-dozen other companies in development of commercial orbital transportation services to the International Space Station. In the first half of 2011, NASA awarded four contracts as part of its commercial crew development program, including one to SpaceX to develop a launch escape system, a requirement for human transport. Shown here is SpaceX's Falcon 9, a 180-foot launch vehicle that's propelled by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene. Credit: SpaceX

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Blue Origin, led by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, seeks to commercialize human space travel. Initial plans are to take three or more astronauts on suborbital trips (on the "edge of space") launched from the company's site in Texas. Longer term, the company is designing a bionic space vehicle, shown here, that's designed to orbit the Earth and then, using parachutes, land on land. Credit: Blue Origin

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Nearly 100 people have signed on to be passengers on Virgin Galactic's commercial suborbital flights around Earth. Pictured here is the spacecraft (center) attached to its mothership. In September 2011, NASA signed a contract, valued at up to $4.5 million, to charter a full flight on Virgin Galactic. Actress Angelina Jolie has purchased a seat on Virgin Galactic's maiden flight. The going price for a ticket: $200,000. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

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The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) project has put 10 satellites into Earth's orbit since 1983, one of which was destroyed in the Challenger shuttle disaster. Boeing is under contract to build two modern, third-generation satellites. TDRS K is scheduled to launch in 2012, and TDRS L in 2013. Credit: NASA

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NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is a concept spacecraft that's designed for both space travel and surface exploration. In this artist's rendering, an astronaut uses tethering to maneuver around an asteroid. The SEV is nearby, with the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle in the background. Credit: NASA

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