WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 2013 — (PRNewswire) — In 2013, NASA helped U.S. commercial companies transform access to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station even as one of the agency's venerable spacecraft was confirmed to have reached interstellar space, and engineers moved ahead on technologies that will help carry out the first astronaut mission to an asteroid and eventually Mars.
"Even in a time of great change and transition, NASA employees stayed focused on what it takes to get the job done -- returning space station resupply launches and the jobs they support back to the United States, developing cutting-edge technologies that will help us send American astronauts to an asteroid and Mars, uncovering new knowledge about our home planet and the universe and helping develop cleaner and quieter airplanes," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "It's all the hard work and dedication from the NASA folks on the frontlines that keep the United States the world's leader in space exploration."
The following are some of NASA's top stories this year:
Commercial Space Progress
A little more than two years after the end of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has returned the International Space Station resupply missions to the United States in a powerful partnership with U.S. companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, who are investing here and creating good-paying jobs for American workers.
NASA remains committed to launching American astronauts from U.S. soil within the next four years. Recent progress includes key milestones in commercial crew development met by three American companies: Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation; a Nov. 19 request for proposals on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract (CCtCap), designed to ensure commercial companies meet NASA's safety requirements for transporting NASA and international partner crews to the International Space Station; unfunded Space Act Agreements with other potential commercial providers; and creation of a Space Technology Program focused on breakthrough innovations that will change future transportation options. These accomplishments have been bolstered by the extension of International Space Station operations to 2020, enabling expanded commercial and research opportunities.
Enabling Deep Space Exploration
The primary destination of these commercial launches, the International Space Station, celebrated 15 years in orbit in November, and crew members have lived and worked aboard the station non-stop since October 2000.
Interest in human spaceflight remains extremely high, and this year NASA welcomed new astronaut candidates from a near-record applicant pool of more than 6,000. Half of the class is women, which is the highest percentage in any class to date. These astronaut candidates are the explorers who will first fly on commercial rockets to low-Earth orbit and help us execute missions to an asteroid and Mars.
2013 was a year of progress toward new capabilities as the agency's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket completed its preliminary design review and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle reached many milestones on its path to undertake its first flight test in 2014. The heat shield that will protect Orion on that mission's re-entry next year was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center for installation; NASA reached an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to partner on the spacecraft's service module; and Orion itself underwent loads testing, a water recovery test, and full power-up.
NASA and 12 of its international partners released a Global Exploration Roadmap, sending a clear signal that the global community is committed to a unified strategy of deep space exploration, with robotic and human missions to destinations that include near-Earth asteroids, the moon and Mars.
The public imagination has been captured by the mission NASA announced in April to redirect an asteroid into a stable retrograde orbit in the vicinity of the moon using cutting-edge space technology, such as solar electric propulsion. This will allow astronauts to visit the asteroid, study its characteristics and bring samples home. In November, NASA held a workshop to discuss about 100 of the best ideas the agency has received from around the world about both identifying asteroids and figuring out what to do about those that are a threat, as well as how to best carry out the asteroid redirect mission. The mission formulation review has been completed, and NASA will move into mission baseline discussions in 2014.
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, having completed its original mission, was reactivated this year to hunt for asteroids. OSIRIS-REx, NASA's robotic mission to return samples from an asteroid, moved from formulation to the development phase in 2013.
NASA also announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge to find and characterize asteroid threats and gather ideas for capturing and redirecting an asteroid for human exploration. The public is incredibly interested in asteroids, and the agency expects strong participation in this initiative.
NASA science this year uncovered new knowledge about our home planet and the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Analysis showed the Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered interstellar space and, at 12 billion miles away, is the most distant man-made object ever created.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) launched in September to study lunar dust and help us better understand other planetary bodies and their formation. It also carried the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) -- breakthrough new technology to improve communication with deep space missions that the agency will continue to refine and advance.
In June, NASA launched the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft to study how solar material moves, gathers energy and heats up.
In February, NASA's Van Allen Probes discovered a third Van Allen Radiation Belt around the Earth.
The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) was launched in February for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to maintain one of the longest-term imagery data sets about our Earth ever -- more than 40 years.
Earth Science continues to be a high priority, and our amazing fleet of Earth-observing satellites helped us see how an amplified greenhouse effect is shifting the northern latitudes' growing season. A study this year of Landsat data yielded the best view to date of global forest losses and gains during this century.
One of the International Space Station's most prominent scientific experiments produced its first results in April. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is a state-of-the-art cosmic ray particle physics detector located on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory. Scientists hope that by measuring cosmic rays, AMS will provide new data about the formation of the universe, antimatter, and evidence of the mysterious dark matter believed to make up most of the universe.
The Kepler mission awed scientists and the public with new exoplanet findings, including discovery of numerous planets in the habitable zone. NASA will be evaluating Kepler data for years to come, as well as exploring the possibility of doing new science investigations with the spacecraft.
The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, continued to move toward its 2018 launch. In November, the telescope's primary mirror backplane support structure, essentially the spine of the massive telescope, completed a rigorous testing regime. The final three of Webb's 18 primary mirrors arrived at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., this month for integration. Once in orbit, the 18 hexagonal mirror segments will work together as one 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror, the largest ever flown and the first to deploy in space.
Elsewhere in astrophysics, scientists saw one of the brightest gamma-ray bursts ever with the Fermi, Swift and NuSTAR telescopes and learned more about the black hole at the center of the Milky Way using the agency's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Fermi celebrated five years in orbit and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated 10 years of incredible science.
Mars is the centerpiece of NASA's planetary exploration. The Curiosity rover continues to explore the planet, and in its first year already has accomplished its primary goal of determining that Mars could indeed have supported life in the past, possibly much later than originally thought. Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector instrument is helping scientists assess round-trip radiation doses for a human mission to Mars.