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Solar System Missions

Solar System Missions
Planetary exploration missions are conducted by some of the most sophisticated robots ever built. Through them we extend our senses to the farthest reaches of the solar system and into remote and hostile environments, where the secrets of our origins and destiny lie hidden. The coming years of solar system exploration promise to be the most exciting and productive yet, as we explore entirely new worlds and probe in even greater detail the facinating environments we have discovered.

Current Missions
The Cassini Mission is in the midst of a detailed study of Saturn, its rings, its magnetosphere, its icy satellites, and its moon Titan. Cassini also delivered a probe (called Huygens, provided by the European Space Agency) to Titan, and has remained in orbit around Saturn. (Launched 1997 October 15; Saturn Arrival: 2004 July 1 )

Deep Impact
Deep Impact's probe slammed into the nucleus of comet Tempel 1 right on schedule, releasing an immense cloud of fine powdery material. The team analyzed the data returned by ground- and space-based observatories, as well as the spacecraft's own instruments. After its encounter with comet Tempel 1, the spacecraft successfully executed a trajectory correction maneuver that put it on a path to fly past Earth on Dec. 31, 2007. The burn preserves options for future use of this accomplished comet hunter. (Launched 2005 January 12; Tempel 1 Impact: 2005 July 4)

Mars Exploration Rovers
Two powerful new Mars rovers are on the red planet. With far greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, these robotic explorers are able to trek up to 100 meters (about 110 yards) across the surface each Martian day. Each rover carries a sophisticated set of instruments that allow it to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet's past. The rovers are identical to each other, but will land at different regions of Mars. The first rover, named Spirit, was launched 2003 June 10, and arrived at Mars on 2004 January 4. The second rover, named Opportunity, launched July 7, and arrived at Mars on 2004 January 25.

Mars Express / Analyzer of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms (ASPERA)
NASA is participating in Mars Express, which is exploring the atmosphere and surface of Mars from polar orbit. Our contribution to the energetic neutral atoms analyzer instrument is called ASPERA-3. ASPERA-3 studies the interaction between the solar wind and the atmosphere of Mars, and attempt to find out what happened to the large amount of water that was once on Mars. (Launched 2003 June 2; Mars arrival: 2003 December 26)

Mars Odyssey
The 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter is mapping the mineralogy and morphology of the Martian surface, and achieving global mapping of the elemental composition of the surface and the abundance of hydrogen in the shallow subsurface. (Launched 2001 April 7; Mars arrival: 2001 October 24)

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will focus on analyzing the surface at new scales in an effort to follow tantalizing hints of water detected in images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, and to bridge the gap between surface observations and measurements from orbit. For example, MRO will measure thousands of Martian landscapes at 20- to 30-centimeter (8- to 12-inch) resolution, good enough to observe rocks the size of beach balls. (Launched 2005 August 12; Mars arrival: 2006 March)

Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER)
MESSENGER is carrying seven instruments to study Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. (Launched 2004 August 3; Mercury arrival: 2011)

New Horizons
The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission will help us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system, by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto and Charon. The mission will then visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects, in the region beyond Neptune. (Launch: 2006 January 19; Pluto arrival: 2015 July)

Rosetta is a European Space Agency mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014. The main spacecraft will orbit the comet, while taking scientific measurements. A Surface Science Package (SSP) will be landed to the comet surface to take in-situ measurements. The U.S. provided science instruments for the orbiter. (Launched 2004 March 2)

Stardust collected interstellar dust, flew by an asteroid, and captured both dust and pictures of Comet P/Wild 2. The spacecraft flew by Earth and dropped off a sample return capsule filled with thousands of particles of primordial dust. The spacecraft itself has been placed in a hibernation state – preserving options for future use. (Launched 1999 February 7; Sample return 2006 January 15)

The twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in the summer of 1977. Though originally designed to last for five years and to visit two planets, both spacecraft far exceeded expectations. Between them, the Voyagers explored all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess. Both spacecraft continue to send back data, providing scientists with valuable observations of the solar system's edge and interstellar space. Voyager 1 is now the furthest human-made object from the Sun, having surpassed Pioneer 10 on February 17, 1998.

Future Missions
The Dawn mission intends to orbit Vesta and Ceres, two of the largest asteroids in the solar system. According to current theories, the very different properties of Vesta and Ceres are the result of the asteroids being formed and evolving in different parts of the solar system. By observing both asteroids with the same set of instruments, Dawn would probe the early solar system as well as determine in detail the properties of each asteroid. (Launch Date: 9/7/07[Launch Dates List])

Concealed beneath a dense cover of clouds, Jupiter, the archetypical "Giant Planet," safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes underlying the early formation of our solar system. The launch of the Juno mission in August, 2011 begins a five-year journey back to Jupiter, to investigate the remaining unanswered questions beneath the surface of the mysterious gas giant. (Launch date: August 2011)

Mars Missions Beyond 2009
In the second decade of the century, NASA plans additional science orbiters, rovers and landers, and the first mission to return samples of Martian rock and soil to Earth.

Mars Science Laboratory 2009
NASA proposes to develop and to launch a roving long-range, long-duration science laboratory that will be a major leap in surface measurements and pave the way for a future sample return mission. The mission will also demonstrate the technology for "smart landers" with accurate landing and hazard avoidance, in order to reach what may be very promising but difficult-to-reach scientific sites. (Launch Date: 9/15/09[Launch Dates List])

This mission proposes to conduct a stationary, in situ investigation of volatiles (especially water), organic molecules and modern climate. It aims to "follow the water" and measure indicator molecules at high-latitude sites where Mars Odyssey has discovered evidence of large ice concentrations in the Martian soil. (Launch Date: 8/3/07[Launch Dates List])

Past Missions
Clementine was a joint project between the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NASA, to test sensors and spacecraft components under extended exposure to the space environment and to make scientific observations of the Moon and the near-Earth asteroid 1620 Geographos. Clementine was launched on 25 January 1994. Lunar mapping took place over approximately two months. After leaving lunar orbit, a malfunction in one of the on-board computers on 7 May caused a thruster to fire until it had used up all of its fuel, leaving the spacecraft spinning at about 80 RPM with no spin control. This made the planned continuation of the mission, a flyby of the near-Earth asteroid Geographos, impossible. The spacecraft remained in geocentric orbit and continued testing the spacecraft components until the end of the mission. NASA funded a number of science grants using Clementine data.

Comet Nucleus Tour
CONTOUR's goals were to improve our knowledge of key characteristics of comet nuclei and to assess their diversity, by making close approaches to at least two comets. CONTOUR was launched 2002 July 3; on August 15, when CONTOUR was to have fired its onboard motor to depart from Earth orbit, contact with the spacecraft was lost, and it may have broken into pieces.

Deep Space 1
During its 11-month primary mission, DS1 successfully tested 12 revolutionary technologies destined for future missions. Having met or exceeded all of its mission success criteria, DS1 began an extended mission which included an encounter with a comet in September 2001 and additional technology testing. Heralding future solar system missions, DS1 was the first to use high-performance, solar electric ion propulsion. (Launched 1998 October 24; mission ended 2001 December 18)

Deep Space 2
On 1999 December 3, two basketball-sized aeroshells arrived at Mars via the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft. Each aeroshell was designed to shatter on impact with Mars' surface, releasing a miniature two-piece science probe that would punch into the soil to a depth of up to 1 meter. The microprobes' primary science goal: to determine if water ice is present in the Martian subsurface. Unfortunately, no signal was received from the probes following Mars arrival. (Launched 1999 January 3)

The Galileo mission produced a string of discoveries about asteroids, a fragmented comet, Jupiter's atmosphere, Jupiter's magnetic environment, and especially about the geologic diversity of Jupiter's four largest moons. The flight team for Galileo ceased operations on 2003 February 28, and Galileo coasted, unattended, before transmitting a few hours of science measurements during its 2003 September 21 plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere. (Launched 1989 October 18; Jupiter arrival 1995 December 7; end of mission 2003 September 21)

The Genesis mission was designed to collect samples of the charged particles in the solar wind and return them to Earth laboratories for detailed analysis. Such data are crucial for improving theories about the origin of the Sun and the planets, which formed from the same primordial dust cloud. The samples were returned to Earth in September 2004, but the capsule's two parachutes did not deploy and it hit the ground hard. A NASA team is evaluating the condition of the samples, which were collected in delicate silicon wafers. (Launched 2001 August 8; sample collection ended 2004 April; sample return 2004 September 8)

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