NASA Extends Its 8 Pivotal Planetary Exploration Missions

How does NASA decide which missions should be next?
nasa missions

NASA has a lot of expensive spacecraft and rovers already in operation. Saving US tax dollars, it is more cost-effective for NASA to extend their use than create new ones for new missions.

Extending the spacecraft and rovers on current missions allows NASA to maximize its investments at a far lower cost for further exploration and analysis.

To decide how resources on current missions should continue to be used, NASA consults with a panel of reviewers chosen from academia and the space industry.

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The panel decides how to deploy NASA’s assets to answer the most urgent scientific questions. Some missions have the potential to have multidivisional scientific benefits.

The review process is overseen by two independent experts acting as chairs. The detailed report from the 2022 Planetary Science Senior Review can be read at this link.

These experts have to consider how to utilize NASA’s existing resources most productively. Each space mission is coordinated by a Principal Investigator (PI).

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As a result of a recent review, the panel has decided to extend eight of NASA’s exiting missions, adding two new PIs to oversee the MAVEN and OSIRIS-REx extended missions.

Mars MAVEN Orbiter 20140921
MAVEN orbiter by NASA

NASA plans to keep a firm focus on Mars, extending five of its current Mars missions. The review panel has also decided to grow a lunar mission that surveys the geology of the Moon and develop an asteroid analysis mission to go and probe the Apophis asteroid, which will be 20,000km from Earth. Furthermore, the review panel wants to push the boundaries of what NASA can observe from orbits extending the New Horizons mission to new record distances.

NASA’s focus stays firmly on Mars

Five of the missions extended by the panel have a strong focus on Mars. These include the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory, better known for news about the Curiosity rover, and InSight Lander.

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Over the past decade, the space community has focussed on the possibility of humans one-day settling on Mars. Extending NASA’s analysis of Mars will be of great value if people are to one day live on Mars.

Extended Mars missions include:

  • Mars Odyssey

Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s primary mission is to investigate the Martian environment and provide critical information on hazards future astronauts might face.

mars obrbieter
Mars Odyssey Orbiter by NASA

The length of Mars Odyssey’s extended mission will depend on the amount of fuel remaining in the spacecraft. Dr. Jeffrey Plaut from JPL university will coordinate the task.

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The extended mission will monitor climate and radiation. It will share data with other Mars mission spacecraft. The mission will also implement thermal studies below Mars’ surface.

  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The sixth extended mission of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), led by Dr. Rich Zurek from JPL University, will study the evolution of Mars’ surface, ices, active geology, and atmosphere and climate. It coordinates its finding with other Mars missions.

  • MAVEN

The MAVEN mission will focus on the impact of increased solar activity as it reaches its maximum in its 11-year cycle. The MAVEN mission will be observing how Mars’ upper atmosphere and magnetic field interact with the Sun during this time of increased solar activity. The MAVEN mission is led by Dr. Shannon Curry, University of California, Berkeley.

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  • Mars Science Laboratory

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), run by Dr. Ashwin Vasavada from JPL university, will send the Curiosity rover to new areas of Mars. This mission will continue to analyze the history of Mars’ water.

  • InSight lander

The InSight lander provides vital monitoring of “marsquakes” and weather on Mars. It is the only working seismic station beyond Earth. For this mission to continue successfully, NASA hopes for a passing “dust devil” on Mars’ to blow clean the equipment’s dirty solar panels. Dr. Bruce Banerdt from JPL university will coordinate the task.

PIA19664 MarsInSightLander Assembly 20150430
Mars InSight Lander Assembly by NASA

Probing an asteroid 20,000 miles from Earth

  • OSIRIS-REx

Near-Earth object asteroids are amongst the greatest threats to the survival of the human race; at the same time, asteroids also offer people the most lucrative opportunities to find precious metals in space.

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NASA is keen to develop its knowledge of asteroids in preparedness for planetary defense preparation and surveying potential rare metals and minerals.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is currently returning samples from the Bennu asteroid that it collected in 2020 under the leadership of Dante Lauretta. When the Bennu samples are returned, the task will be led by Dr. Daniella Della Giustina from the University of Arizona, who will divert it to Apophis. Apophis is an asteroid approximately 1,200 feet (370 meters) in width that will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth in 2029.

NASA hasn’t finished with the Moon yet

  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA is also going to extend the mission of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter under the leadership of Dr. Noah Petro from GSFC University.

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The focus of the mission will be to continue to study the geology of the surface of the Moon. The comprehensive study will allow the LRO to study new regions away from the poles in more detail. The Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) of the Moon will also be explored, where NASA may find ice near the poles. LRO will also provide necessary reconnaissance for NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon, including the Artemis mission.

Orbiting further than has even been orbited before

  • New Horizons

Dr. Alan Stern from SwRI will try and get the New Horizons spacecraft to orbit further than it has ever orbited before.

New horizons NASA
New horizons by NASA

In space, distances are measured in astronomical units, and one astronomical unit is equal to 92,955,807.3 miles. Assuming that the New Horizons spacecraft remains functional, the spacecraft will explore up to 63 astronomical units (AU) from Earth in an extended mission.

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Previously in 2015, the New Horizons mission set new orbit records when it flew past an object in the Kuiper Belt object in 2019. It also went past Pluto in 2015.

The selection of extended missions chosen by the panel will reveal fascinating information about space over the coming years.


Feature image credit: NASA

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