Eight planetary science missions earn extensions | Technology Today

Following a thorough evaluation, NASA has extended the planetary science missions of eight of its spacecraft due to their scientific productivity and potential to deepen knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.

The selections include four missions managed by programs in the Planetary Missions Programs Office at Marshall Space Flight Center: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and InSight from the Discovery Program, and New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx from the New Frontiers Program. Also selected were Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover). The missions will continue assuming their spacecraft remain healthy. Most of the missions will be extended for three years; however, OSIRIS-REx will be continued for nine years in order to reach a new destination, and InSight will be continued until the end of 2022, unless the spacecraft’s electrical power allows for longer operations.

Each extended mission proposal was reviewed by a panel of independent experts drawn from academia, industry and NASA. In total, more than 50 reviewers evaluated the scientific return of the respective proposals. Two independent review chairs oversaw the process and, based on the panel evaluations, validated that these eight science missions hold substantial potential to continue bringing new discoveries and addressing compelling new science questions.

Beyond providing important programmatic benefit to NASA, several of these missions promise multidivisional science benefits across NASA’s entire Science Mission Directorate, including their use as data relays for Mars surface landers and rovers, as well as to support other NASA initiatives such as the Commercial Lunar Payload services.

“Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s large investments in exploration, allowing continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission,” Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters, said. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to obtain valuable new science data, and in some cases, allows NASA to explore new targets with totally new science goals.”

OSIRIS-APEX: The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is currently on its way back to Earth to deliver the samples of asteroid Bennu that it collected in 2020. Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona in Tucson, will remain in place for the primary mission, while Dr. Daniella DellaGiustina, also of the University of Arizona, begins her role as the newly named principal investigator for OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer (OSIRIS-APEX). With a new name to reflect the extended mission’s new goals, the OSIRIS-APEX team will redirect the spacecraft to encounter Apophis, an asteroid roughly 1,200 feet in diameter that will come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029. OSIRIS-APEX will enter orbit around Apophis soon after the asteroid’s Earth flyby, providing an unprecedented close-up look at this S-type asteroid. It plans to study changes in the asteroid caused by its close flyby of Earth and use the spacecraft’s gas thrusters to attempt to dislodge and study the dust and small rocks on and below Apophis’ surface.

InSight: Since landing on Mars in 2018, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission has operated the only active seismic station beyond Earth. Its seismic monitoring of marsquakes has provided constraints on Mars’ interior, formation, and current activity. The extended mission will continue InSight’s seismic and weather monitoring if the spacecraft remains healthy. However, due to dust accumulation on its solar panels, InSight’s electrical power production is low, and the mission is unlikely to continue operations for the duration of its current extended mission unless its solar panels are cleared by a passing dust devil in Mars’ atmosphere. Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is InSight’s principal investigator.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will continue to study the surface and geology of the Moon. The evolution of the orbiter’s orbit will allow it to study new regions away from the poles in unprecedented detail, including the Permanently Shadowed Regions near the poles where water ice may be found. The orbiter will also provide important programmatic support for NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon. Noah Petro of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the orbiter’s project scientist.

New Horizons: New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper belt object Arrokoth in 2019. In its second extended mission, New Horizons will continue to explore the distant solar system out to 63 astronomical units from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft can potentially conduct multidisciplinary observations of relevance to the solar system and NASA’s Heliophysics and Astrophysics Divisions. Additional details regarding New Horizons’ science plan will be provided at a later date. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio is New Horizons’ principal investigator.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division operates 14 spacecraft across the solar system, has 12 missions in formulation and implementation, and partners with international space agencies on seven others.

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