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Science: 

Mars, Jupiter and the Sun – this is what’s next for NASA

NASA Sun body

Mission to the Sun – NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

On 12 November 2014, the Rosetta robotic space probe landed its module, Philae, on a comet over 300 million miles away. Built and launched by the European Space Agency, NASA contributed a significant portion of the electronics and instruments to the probe, bringing back information that gives mankind a deeper knowledge of how the universe was formed and paving the way for further space exploration. So, time for the agency to take a well-earned break? Yeah, right…

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Pack your Ray-Bans and an industrial-sized tube of Factor 50, we’re off to the sun! Solar Probe Plus, announced in 2009, will be the first mission to our nearest star. Flying into the Sun’s atmosphere (or corona), it will be the closest any previous spacecraft has come to the hat-wearing fireball. The primary goal is to understand how the Sun’s corona is heated and how solar wind is generated.

Nasa sun mission

Sun, sun, sun, here we come! / NASA

Originally scheduled for a 2015 launch, the mission has been pushed to 2018, and is planned to take six years, 321 days. As the probe passes around the Sun it will reach velocity of 200km/s, making it the fastest manmade object ever. Obviously needing to survive extreme heat, the solar shield at the front of the craft will be made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite, rather than, say, chocolate.

It will come about 6.2 million kilometers from the surface, orbiting 24 times with the help of seven Venus flybys. Solar Probe Plus’ project scientist, Nicky Fox, said in March, “For the first time, we will be able to go up and touch our star”. Oven gloves at the ready.

Let me see what life is like on Jupiter and… Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in 2006 for its long journey to the mysterious Pluto – the dwarf planet with a radius of 750 miles (less than 20 percent of the Earth’s radius). It’s even smaller than the Moon. About a third of its flight time has been spent in hibernation, and – nearly three billion miles from home – its final slumber will come to an end on December 6 2014. It will begin to monitor Pluto from a distance from January 15 2015 with its closest approach on July 14. The whole craft operates on less power than a pair of 100-Watt light bulbs.

Pluto mission NASA

Artist rendering of New Horizons approaching Pluto / NASA

Another craft, Juno, is travelling at 30 km per second in hot pursuit of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. Launched in 2011, the craft is on course to arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, whereby it will circle the planet 33 times. It will use its collection of instruments to probe beneath the gas giant’s obscuring cloud cover, teaching scientists about the planet’s origins, internal structure and atmosphere.

What about manned missions?

Yes, it’s not all about machines with cameras for NASA, the organization is of course working to send humans to Mars. But first, it wants to send humans to an asteroid. The agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will robotically identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth space rock to a stable orbit around the moon. Then in the 2020s, astronauts will explore the asteroid and bring back samples, providing the chance to test new technologies that will take us to Mars in the 2030s. NASA will announce the lucky asteroid no earlier than 2019.

NASA recently unveiled its new, largest-ever rocket – the Space Launch System – which is suitably powerful and grand enough to play a part in sending us to the Red Planet. NASA is deep into tests and research concerning bone and muscle atrophy – conditions which might befall astronauts on the six-eight month journey. For instance, at time of writing, a man is on his back in the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit in Houston, Texas, being paid $18,000 to lie down for 70 days. He has four weeks still to go.

NASA space launch system body

Destination Mars – Space Launch System / NASA

After billions of dollars and thousands of hours of testing are in the bag, and after the Mars 2020 Rover completes its mission, it’ll be all systems go for the mission that might finally answer David Bowie’s famous question.

– Too long didn’t read? For a briefer overview of Nasa’s upcoming missions, check out this infographic.

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