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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

NASA's Top Exploration and Discovery Stories of the Year

NASA moved forward in 2006 to extend humanity's exploration of the solar system and learn moreabout the universe and our home planet. The space shuttle got back to work building the International Space Station, and the agency began developing the next generation of spacecraft and outlined plans for returning to the moon as a stepping stone toward Mars. Space science missions found new evidence of water on Mars, sent the first-ever probes toward Pluto, brought back dust from a comet and launched new instruments to study the sun and the weather on Earth.


America's Vision for Space Exploration, the long-term plan for sending humans to Mars and beyond, moved ahead in August with the selection of Lockheed Martin Corp. as the prime contractor to build the Orion crew exploration vehicle, to be operational by 2014. Orion and its astronaut crew will be propelled into space by the new Ares I launch vehicle. Larger equipment bound for the moon and Mars will ride into space atop the Ares V heavy launch vehicle. The Ares I successfully completed its systems requirement review during the fall of 2006. The next generation launch vehicles will be based on advanced versions of technology from the Apollo and shuttle programs but also will employ newly developed systems and hardware with far greater capabilities.

In December, NASA unveiled elements of a Global Exploration Strategy and lunar architecture to explain the rationale for returning to the moon for further exploration and to help prepare for later journeys to Mars and other destinations.


During the space shuttle's 25th anniversary year, three missions resumed construction work on the International Space Station. Space shuttle Discovery's STS-121 mission in July was the second flight to the station since the Columbia accident in 2003. Astronauts proved new engineering designs and safety techniques and demonstrated that if needed the shuttle's robotic arm could serve as a platform for emergency repairs. Discovery also delivered a new crew member, increasing the station's crew size to three for the first time since May 2003. NASA followed up that flight with launches of STS-115 in September and STS-116 in December. The shuttles delivered and attached a critical piece of the station's girder-like backbone, including a new set of solar arrays to provide up to one quarter of the station's power, and reconfigured the station's power and thermal control systems. Astronauts also installed a new station component, giving crew members more room to live and work in orbit. The stage is now set for an active 2007 that will see the station's size and research capabilities dramatically grow, NASA says.


In late October, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced plans for a fifth space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to extend and improve the observatory's capabilities through 2013. The announcement reversed an earlier decision, made following the Columbia accident, that further Hubble servicing missions would no longer be feasible. NASA revised that decision after a detailed analysis of safety issues for the shuttle crew and procedures necessary to carry out a successful repair and upgrade mission. The flight to Hubble is targeted for launch in 2008. During 2006, the Hubble continued to make unprecedented observations that included an image of the dimmest stars ever seen in any globular cluster and the discovery of 16 extrasolar planet candidates.


The launch of the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto in January began an extraordinary year of deep space activities. Scheduled to arrive at Pluto in 2015, the spacecraft will encounter Jupiter in 2007. NASA's Stardust mission completed a 2.88 billion mile round-trip odyssey to capture andreturn comet and interstellar dust particles to Earth. Scientists believe these rare samples may provide answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. The Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The unusual occurrence of liquid water so near the surface of Enceladus raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.Cassini also discovered two new rings around Saturn, confirmed the presence of two others and photographed something never before seen on another planet -- a hurricane-like storm at Saturn's south pole.

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