NASA’s Exploration Year in Review

BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)
BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2016, NASA drove advances in technology, science, aeronautics and space exploration that enhanced the world’s knowledge, innovation, and stewardship of Earth.

“This past year marked record-breaking progress in our exploration objectives,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We advanced the capabilities we’ll need to travel farther into the solar system while increasing observations of our home and the universe, learning more about how to continuously live and work in space, and, of course, inspiring the next generation of leaders to take up our Journey to Mars and make their own discoveries.”

Solar System and Beyond

NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. (Credit: NASA)
NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. (Credit: NASA)

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit July 4. Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Returning data and images to Earth gathered by NASA’s Space Network will keep scientists busy for years to come.

The Sept. 8 launch of NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission began a journey that could revolutionize our understanding of the early solar system. Called the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), the spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with and study the asteroid Bennu, and then return a sample of it to Earth in 2023.

NASA Administrator Bolden with agency scientists and engineers discussed the next steps for NASA’s next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, while also providing a rare glimpse of the telescope’s mirrors following completion of the final primary mirror segment in February. The biggest and most powerful space telescope ever designed now is being prepared for transport to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2017 for testing prior to final assembly and launch in 2018.

After years of preparatory studies, NASA in 2016 formally started an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe. Called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), it will aid researchers in their efforts to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. It also will discover new worlds outside our solar system — known as exoplanets — and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life.

This artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope. (Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel)
This artist’s concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. (Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel)

NASA’s Kepler mission in May verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of exoplanets to date — more than doubling the number of confirmed planets from Kepler. This gave scientists hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth. Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets.

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, and the moon is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system.

New research in May indicated solar explosions may have been the key to seeding life on Earth as we know it some 4 billion years ago.

Like sending sensors up into a hurricane, NASA announced in May it had successfully flown for the first time the four Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft through an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection. MMS now also holds the Guinness World Record for highest altitude fix of a GPS signal at 43,500 miles above the surface.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now is entering the final year of its epic voyage. While this historic science odyssey will conclude in September 2017, the spacecraft will first complete a daring two-part endgame. On Nov. 30, Cassini began a series of 20 weekly F-ring orbits, just past the outer edge of the main rings. Cassini’s final phase — called the grand finale — begins in April 2017.

NASA’s New Horizons mission reached a major milestone in October when the last bits of science data from the Pluto flyby – stored on the spacecraft’s digital recorders since July 2015 – arrived safely on Earth.

In June, the mission received the green light to fly onward to a 2019 rendezvous with an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69. In January, NASA announced it was formalizing its ongoing program for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) as the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). The office supervises all NASA-funded projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth’s orbit. It also takes a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats. In October, a major milestone was reached with the number of discovered near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) crossing the 15,000 threshold, with an average of 30 new discoveries added each week.

International Space Station

 One-year mission crew members Scott Kelly of NASA (left) and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos (right) celebrated their 300th consecutive day in space on Jan. 21, 2016. (Credit: NASA)
One-year mission crew members Scott Kelly of NASA (left) and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos (right) celebrated their 300th consecutive day in space on Jan. 21, 2016. (Credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth March 1 after an historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station. The unprecedented mission continues as scientists continue to assess and apply the data to advance NASA’s understanding and preparations for long-duration human spaceflight on the Journey to Mars.

The International Space Station continues to be the world’s premier orbiting laboratory, where humans have been continuously conducting critical research for more than 16 years to demonstrate new technologies and provide benefits to Earth. Most recently, astronaut Peggy Whitson joined the space station crew; in February she will become the first woman to command the orbiting outpost twice. By the conclusion of her mission she is set to become the U.S. astronaut with the most cumulative time in space, surpassing Jeff Williams’ 2016 record of 534 days.

During four missions in 2016, NASA’s commercial cargo partners Orbital ATK and SpaceX launched more than 24,000 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station, including crew supplies and equipment to support hundreds of crucial science experiments and technology demonstrations aboard the space station.

Experiments included Saffire-I and Saffire-II, which provided a new way to study fire on an uncrewed exploration craft, and research included the sequencing of more than one billion base pairs of DNA in space for the first time.

The agency’s first test of an expandable module began with the delivery to the station of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in April and its full expansion in May. During the two-year test mission of BEAM to determine whether astronauts could use such structures for deep space missions, astronauts will enter the module for a few hours several times each year to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions.

Throughout 2016, hundreds of engineers and technicians with NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX worked to complete the final designs, manufacturing, and testing of commercial space transportation systems to return crewed spacecraft launches to American soil. While Commercial Crew Program development continues on Earth, important preparations are underway on the space station, including the delivery and installation of the first International Docking Adapter, which will enable future crews to arrive via Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

NASA also awarded future cargo resupply contracts to ensure the critical science, research and technology demonstrations that are informing the agency’s Journey to Mars are delivered to the International Space Station from 2019 through 2024

Journey to Mars

Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)

Astronaut candidates who will join future deep space missions will arrive at NASA in the summer of 2017 to begin their training. Their selection follows the agency’s largest astronaut recruitment ever, in which more than 18,300 people applied to join NASA’s astronaut class. That’s more than double the previous record.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is moving forward with plans to send new robotic explorers to the Red Planet, while ticking off key milestones for the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft into the proving ground of deep space, set to launch in late 2018 from an upgraded 21st century spaceport at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Workers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility have completed welding on the fuel tank for the SLS core stage, while we’ve successfully tested both the solid rocket booster and the RS-25 engines which will power the rocket’s journeys to space.  The Orion spacecraft has been put through its paces, with multiple splashdown tests, parachute tests, and a recovery test in the Pacific Ocean. In September, the heat shield which will protect Orion on that 2018 test flight arrived at Kennedy.

In March, the agency wrapped up a comprehensive and successful review of modernization at the Kennedy Space Center. Workers upgraded a variety of systems on the launch pad and erected new platforms in the famed Vehicle Assembly Building this year in order to prepare SLS and Orion for flight.

Two three-unit (3U) CubeSats. At about a foot in length and four inches wide, these are similar in design to IceCube and the five selected heliophysics CubeSats. (Credit: NASA)
Two three-unit (3U) CubeSats. At about a foot in length and four inches wide, these are similar in design to IceCube and the five selected heliophysics CubeSats. (Credit: NASA)

The first flight of SLS also will launch 13 CubeSats, small satellite secondary payloads which will carry science and technology investigations to help pave the way for future human exploration of deep space. NASA currently is seeking ideas for additional payloads for the second flight and partnership opportunities for the future Asteroid Redirect Mission. These efforts build on NASA’s success demonstrating the demand and use of such small satellites deployed via the space station and other launches for commercial, educational, technology, and science activities.

In August, NASA selected six companies to develop ground prototypes and new concepts for the deep space habitats that will be needed on long-duration journeys where humans will live and work for months or years at a time without cargo deliveries from Earth.

Also in August, NASA approved the Asteroid Redirect Mission to proceed to the next phase of design and development for its robotic segment. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, sought proposals for the robotic spacecraft design, and plans to award a contract for its development in 2017.

The next two robotic missions to Mars passed key milestones in 2016, with the InSight lander getting the green light for a 2018 launch, and the Mars 2020 rover approved for the final design and construction phase.

In July, NASA selected five companies to study concepts for a potential future Mars orbiter, which would provide telecommunications and global high-resolution imaging.

In November, researchers using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) determined an ice deposit beneath the cracked and pitted plains of the planet’s Utopia Planitia region contains about as much water as that in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. MRO also is using its hi-res camera to examine potential landing sites for future robotic and human missions. Meanwhile, Mars scientists continue to investigate the seasonal dark streaks known as recurring slope lineae, looking for what they can tell us about the presence of water on the Red Planet.

The Curiosity rover found chemicals in Martian rocks that suggest the Red Planet once had more oxygen in its atmosphere than it does now. Curiosity also made the first in-place study of active sand dunes on another planet and found a distinctive ripple pattern not seen on Earth. The rover continued to send back amazing imagery, including a close-up view of an odd looking iron meteorite and stunning photos of the Murray Buttes, which evoke the National Parks of the American West. Curiosity can now choose its own rock targets for its laser spectrometer, a first for an instrument of this kind on a planetary mission.

Both Curiosity and the Opportunity rover, which has been operating since 2004, successfully tested a radio relay in November, using NASA-provided radios on the newly-arrived European Trace Gas Orbiter to send a signal to Earth, strengthening the international telecommunications network supporting Mars exploration.

Aeronautics

This rendering shows the Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept featuring two engines under the wings and one on top of the fuselage (not visible in this image).
This rendering shows the Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept featuring two engines under the wings and one on top of the fuselage (not visible in this image).

NASA’s rich aeronautical research heritage added to its history of technical innovation in 2016 with advancements that will help make airplanes use less fuel, release fewer emissions and fly more quietly – and that includes working to return supersonic flight to the commercial marketplace. A preliminary design for a supersonic flight demonstrator called QueSST – short for Quiet Supersonic Technology – began in 2016 with the goal of showcasing new ways to shape an aircraft so that when it’s flying faster than the speed of sound it won’t generate an annoying sonic boom.

On a related note, having established a long-range research plan that’s in line with the aviation industry, NASA took steps in 2016 to resume designing, building and flying several experimental aircraft – or X-planes – as a means to demonstrate key green technologies and help accelerate their use by industry. It’s all part of New Aviation Horizons, a 10-year initiative included in President Obama’s budget request for the 2017 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The first NASA X-plane to receive an official number designation in a decade was unveiled this year. The X-57 Maxwell is a general aviation-sized aircraft equipped with 14 propellers, each turned by their own electric motor that is integrated into a uniquely-designed wing. The X-57 is scheduled for its first flight in March 2018.

NASA’s aeronautical innovators joined government and industry partners to unveil a new research laboratory at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The airspace technology demonstration (ATD-2) lab is part of a five-year test project aimed at streamlining the arrival and departure of aircraft and improving surface operations to increase safety and efficiency, and reduce fuel use in our nation’s aviation system.

Inroads were made on technologies that could be part of a system to safely operate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly called “drones,” in uncontrolled and controlled airspace. A complex flight campaign using NASA’s Ikhana UAS, along with virtual and real “intruder” aircraft, took place this summer to test sophisticated “detect and avoid” technologies in regulated national airspace.

April saw the first and largest demonstration of its kind when NASA engineers and operators from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) six UAS test sites across the country flew 22 drones simultaneously to assess rural operations of NASA’s UAS traffic management (UTM) research platform.

With an eye to considering revolutionary solutions to tomorrow’s challenges, NASA selected five green technology concepts for study that include research in alternative fuel cells, using 3-D printing to increase electric motor output, the use of lithium-air batteries for energy storage, new mechanisms for changing the shape of an aircraft wing in flight, and the use of a lightweight material called aerogel in the design and development of aircraft antenna.

Earth

Jason-3 satellite (Credit: NASA)
Jason-3 satellite (Credit: NASA)

This year, new Earth science missions got underway to enable studies that will unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to its core. NASA joined with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and European partners in January to launch an oceanography satellite mission that will continue a nearly quarter-century record of tracking global sea level rise. Data from the Jason-3 mission will improve weather, climate and ocean forecasts, including helping NOAA’s National Weather Service and other global weather and environmental forecast agencies more accurately forecast the strength of tropical cyclones.

In November, NASA successfully launched for NOAA the first in a new series of highly advanced geostationary weather satellites called Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R. GOES-R will boost the nation’s weather observation capabilities, leading to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings.

NASA also is pushing the envelope on a new technology to advance our understanding of hurricanes worldwide. The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission launched Dec. 15. It’s a unique small satellite constellation that will help improve hurricane intensity, track, and storm surge forecasts.

In 2017, NASA will launch two Earth-observing instruments to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s ongoing use of the orbiting space laboratory to study our changing planet. The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) from NASA’s Langley Research Center will give NASA a new way to monitor Earth’s protective ozone layer and document its ongoing recovery. The Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) from Marshall Space Flight Center will measure both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning over much of the planet, data that will help improve our understanding of lightning’s connections to weather and related phenomena. Both instruments will continue important long-term data records of how our planet works.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) twin satellites, launched in 2002, have since provided the first tool capable of quantifying land liquid water storage trends. New measurements announced in February from the mission allowed researchers for the first time to determine how much water is being stored on land that would otherwise have added to sea level rise as the result of climate change.

NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development expanded the SERVIR network of environmental monitoring centers they support this year in developing countries to West Africa.

Technology

solar_electric_propulsion_hall_thrusterNASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate selected three companies for in-space robotic manufacturing and assembly projects. The projects will mature systems concepts and technologies that could revolutionize the way we design and deploy spacecraft and large space structures in low-Earth orbit and beyond, such as additive manufacturing, robotics, and autonomy to enable manufacturing and assembling spacecraft structural systems in-orbit.

NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion project is developing critical technologies to enable safer and more cost-effective space travel to destinations, such as Mars and asteroids. In April 2016, a commercial vendor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, was selected for a three-year contract to develop major components for a flight propulsion system, including delivering four units to be employed in an upcoming flight demonstration mission.

In July, NASA’s Game Changing Development program successfully launched a self-contained, wax-based heat exchanger to the International Space Station. This new exchanger could help offset heat and better regulate temperatures experienced by spacecraft, such as Orion. The goal is to provide in-space performance data on this flight-proven phase change material heat exchanger in order to be considered for use on NASA’s Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission on Orion and the Space Launch System rocket.

NASA’s Technology Transfer program continued in 2016 to share the agency’s technology with industry, academia and other government agencies at an unprecedented rate, making it simpler and faster for users to access the benefits of NASA’s investments in aerospace research. NASA’s patent gift initiative in May released dozens of patented agency technologies into the public domain, making its government-developed technologies freely available for unrestricted commercial use. And a searchable database now is online that catalogues thousands of formerly patented NASA technologies freely available for anyone to use.

Public Engagement

By engaging in public events, including South by Southwest; the USA Science and Engineering Festival; Essence Festival; Chicago Air and Water Show; Star Trek 50th Anniversary: Mission New York; and nationwide Earth Day activities, more than two million people this year had the chance to interact with representatives of America’s space agency. More than 400 million people were reached through NASA’s use of social media during these events.

NASA’s globally popular website, NASA.gov, was honored again in 2016 with the People’s Voice award for best government website at the Webby Awards. The popular vote was the eighth People’s Voice award for the site, and after 2015’s redesign, it was the fourth different design for which NASA has won. Traffic to the site continued to increase steadily, rising 20 percent over 2015 numbers to just more than 300,000 visits per day. The site also continues to receive customer satisfaction ratings that put it near the top of all government websites.

NASA’s social media presence continued to grow in 2016. The agency’s flagship Twitter account now has more than 20 million followers, the most in the federal government and top 100 overall on the platform. NASA also has the most followers in government on Facebook with about 18 million likes. In addition to NASA TV, the agency also broadcasted its first rocket launch on Facebook Live, reaching more than 800,000 people. While in orbit aboard the International Space Station, #YearInSpace astronaut Scott Kelly hosted NASA’s first Tweetchat, Reddit AMA, Tumblr Answer Time, and Facebook Q&A from space. After his return, he hosted a Facebook Live and the agency kicked off its official presence on Snapchat. This month, NASA officially launched Pinterest and GIPHY accounts. The agency also hosted 15 NASA Socials, bringing together more than 1,000 followers who engage with NASA via social media for unique in-person experiences of exploration and discovery.

Citizen Science, Prizes and Challenges

In 2016, NASA launched 28 challenges with almost 122,000 participants, received over 5,000 submissions, and provided a total of $1.2 million in cash awards. Eight NASA citizen scientists also were recognized as co-authors on a peer-reviewed paper. The agency launched a new GLOBE Observer app for citizen scientists to track changes in their local environment, and a way for the public to participate in the exploration of our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter.

NASA’s partnership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ran two successful Future Engineers 3-D printed design competitions for students, the Star Trek Replicator and the Think Outside the Box challenges. This summer, the winner of the 2014 Space Tool Design Future Engineers challenge saw his multipurpose tool design printed onboard the space station. NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) successfully conducted seven NASA Tournament Lab challenges and finally saw the crowd-developed ISS Food Intake Tracker successfully deployed on the space station iPads for use by astronauts.

NASA’s Centennial Challenges program launched two new competitions: the Vascular Tissue challenge uses regenerative medicine to help humans survive long-term space travel, and the Space Robotics challenge is working to build robots that could help humans during the journey to Mars. NASA also awarded $750,000 to West Virginia University for winning the Sample Robot Return challenge, and the Cube Quest challenge awarded a total of $300,000 to the highest-scoring teams in two ground tournaments.

STEM Education Collaboration

NASA continued its work with other federal agencies, industry partners and academia to provide to students and teachers throughout the United States unique and compelling opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. This year, NASA awarded approximately $13 million to 12 informal education organizations to help inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. The agency also continued its support of students through programs like NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project, and awarded scholarships and fellowships to 111 students, including over $800,000 for 14 students through the Aeronautics Scholarships and Advanced STEM Training and Research Fellowships program. NASA also offered opportunities for 1734 students to intern at NASA facilities across the country.

As part of NASA’s effort to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and explorers, and to honor the story of African-American women who broke barriers at NASA and in 1960s society, the Office of Education created a Modern Figures toolkit for educators teaching grades K-12, and hosted a Digital Learning Network event Dec. 1 at NASA’s Langley Research Center to tell the story behind the story of the upcoming movie Hidden Figures.

For more about NASA’s missions, research and discoveries, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov