Space travel. NASA Takes Giant Leaps on the Journey to Mars, Eyes Our Home Planet and the Distant Universe, Tests Technologies and Improves the Skies Above in 2014.
In 2014, NASA took significant steps on the agency’s journey to Mars — testing cutting-edge technologies and making scientific discoveries while studying our changing Earth and the infinite universe as the agency made progress on the next generation of air travel.
“We continued to make great progress on our journey to Mars this year, awarding contracts to American companies who will return human space flight launches to U.S. soil, advancing space technology development; and successfully completing the first flight of Orion, the next deep space spacecraft in which our astronauts will travel,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We moved forward on our work to create quieter, greener airplanes and develop technologies to make air travel more efficient; and we advanced our study of our changing home planet, Earth, while increasing our understanding of others in our solar system and beyond.”
Journey to Mars:
NASA achieved a major milestone in December on its journey to Mars as the agency’s Orion spacecraft completed its first voyage to space during a four-and-a-half-hour flight test.
Orion is part of NASA’s plan to develop new technologies and capabilities to send astronauts farther than ever before, first to an asteroid, and onward to the Red Planet.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related education soared to new heights with a student-built radiation experiment aboard Orion. NASA’s Office of Education, partnered with the Lockheed Martin Corp., used the Exploration Design Challenge to engage students in STEM by inviting them to help tackle one of the most significant dangers of human space flight — radiation exposure.
NASA’s parallel path for human spaceflight also took a giant leap forward in September when the agency announced U.S. astronauts once again would travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from the United States on American spacecraft under groundbreaking contracts worked by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The agency selected Boeing and SpaceX to transport U.S. crews to and from the space station using their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, with a goal of ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia in 2017. NASA’s parallel path for human spaceflight involves U.S. commercial companies providing access to low-Earth orbit while NASA prepares deep space exploration missions with Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The SLS rocket, the most powerful ever built, moved from the concept phase to the development phase in 2014. Also this year, all major tools were installed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where the rocket will be constructed.
For 40 years, increasingly advanced robotic explorers have studied the conditions on Mars. This has dramatically increased our scientific knowledge about the planet, as well as helped pave the way for astronauts on the journey to Mars. In July, NASA announced its Mars Rover 2020, which is based on the successful Curiosity rover. Mars 2020 will carry instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet, including help with data for a human mission to Mars.
NASA’s newest member of its fleet of robotic Red Planet explorers, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit Sept. 21, where it is beginning its study of the planet’s upper atmosphere as never done before. That extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, had front row seats to image and study a once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby of Mars in October.
The agency’s Curiosity rover continued this year to help refine our understanding of Mars. In December, NASA announced Curiosity has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill. Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars. Observations by Curiosity also indicate Mount Sharp near the rover’s landing site was built by sediments deposited in a large lake bed over tens of millions of years.
NASA continues to advance the journey to Mars through progress on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which will test a number of new capabilities needed for future human expeditions to deep space, including to Mars. This includes advanced Solar Electric Propulsion — an efficient way to move heavy cargo using solar power, which could help pre-position cargo for future human missions to the Red Planet. As part of ARM, a robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid and redirect an asteroid mass to a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts will explore the asteroid mass in the 2020’s, helping test modern spaceflight capabilities like new spacesuits and sample return techniques. Astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston have already begun to practice the capabilities needed for the mission.
Agency officials are studying two robotic capture concepts for the robotic spacecraft that will rendezvous with the asteroid. One option would use an inflatable mechanism to capture an entire small asteroid. Another option would use robotic arms to retrieve a boulder from a much larger asteroid. NASA centers across the country are advancing and testing technologies for both concepts. Mission managers reviewed the two capture concepts in a December meeting and NASA expects to select a concept for the mission in early 2015.
The agency has identified three asteroids that could be good candidates for each capture option so far and anticipates finding one or two per year for each option. Efforts to identify good candidates for the mission are also helping augment NASA’s existing work to survey near-Earth objects and identify those that could threaten Earth. In addition to the spaceflight capabilities ARM will advance, the mission will also represent a new opportunity for planetary defense demonstrations, to help mitigate asteroid risks in the future.
NASA has identified almost 12,000 Near Earth Objects to-date, including 96 percent of near Earth asteroids larger than .6 miles (1 kilometer) in size. NASA has not detected any objects of this size that pose an impact hazard to Earth in the next 100 years.
Teams at NASA centers spent 2014 testing various technologies, including solar electric propulsion, new spacesuits designs and sample collection tools, that will be used by astronauts on the journey to Mars and demonstrated on ARM.
NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge is an effort to reach beyond traditional boundaries and encourage partnerships and collaboration with a variety of organizations to find all asteroid threats to human population and know what to do about them. The challenge had success in 2014 engaging the public through a variety of new partnerships, such as ECAST, SpaceGAMBIT and the Asteroid Data Hunter contest.
More about NASA highlights of 2014 http://www.nasa.gov/