NASA also launched in November its next mission to the Red Planet, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which will study the Martian upper atmosphere from orbit. NASA's 2016 InSight mission narrowed its landing sites for Mars while the Mars 2020 team outlined its goals for our next rover to the planet.
Aeronautics – the First 'A' in NASA
Here on Earth, NASA continued to mark progress in developing the next generation of air transportation systems (NextGen).
A new computer software tool developed by NASA's aeronautical innovators -- the Precision Departure Release Capability (PDRC) -- allows commercial aircraft to be sequenced for takeoff so that they are able to climb directly to their enroute travel altitudes instead of being required to make multiple intermediate level-offs as in the past. NASA officially presented this innovative software to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during a ceremony at the FAA's headquarters in Washington on Aug. 6. With PDRC, controllers will be able to improve the overall efficiency of air traffic management by reducing missed or delayed departures and allowing more aircraft to depart within a given timeframe.
NASA announced a new aeronautics strategy with six areas of focus to help address upcoming challenges in global air transportation. The agency also tested alternate jet fuel in its DC-8 flying laboratory; selected eight large scale technology demonstrations to advance concepts for reducing aviation impact on the environment; chose six companies to partner on advanced composite materials research to enable a significant reduction in development to certification time; and flew the X-48C hybrid-wing body subscale aircraft to demonstrate concepts for cleaner and quieter air travel.
Developing Technologies for the Future
This year, NASA created a Space Technology Mission Directorate to help advance the cutting-edge technologies it will need for future missions. The agency completed testing on a prototype composite cryogenic propellant tank with a 25 percent reduction in cost and 30 percent reduction in weight, resulting in increased payload capacity.
NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne hot-fire tested a 3-D printed rocket engine injector, marking a first step in using additive manufacturing to support space travel.
The agency began the next chapter in NASA's improved entry, descent and landing capabilities through the completion of a test of a full-scale supersonic inflatable decelerator. The test successfully demonstrated the ability to deploy and pull a large parachute through the dynamic loads it would experience at Mars, using a helicopter to drop the ringsail parachute and a rocket sled to pull the parachute with 90,000 pounds of force. This technology will increase the current capability to land heavy payloads on Mars by as much as 25 percent.
In April and November, NASA sent three Cubesats -- two early designs and one more mature -- to space as part of the agency's Small Spacecraft Technology Program. The first three PhoneSats successfully orbited Earth for a week, sending back pictures and demonstrating that an off-the-shelf commercial smart phone can serve as a spacecraft operating computer. The fourth PhoneSat launched in November and is expected to be in space for a year, proving the longevity of a smart phone cubesat in space, powered by solar panels.
NASA strengthened its early stage pipeline with the nation's brightest and best by engaging in more than 400 activities with 75 accredited U.S. universities to enable future missions and our continued leadership in space. For the third consecutive year, NASA awarded competitive technology fellowships for graduate research on the agency's most difficult space technology challenges. Sixty-five new fellowships were awarded this year, bringing to 193 the total number of graduate student space technology development efforts funded to-date. Several fellowship graduates already are making an impact in the nation's aerospace and innovation workforce.
Public Engagement, Economic and Societal Benefits
NASA also continued to transfer the benefits of exploration to improving life on Earth. NASA and Homeland Security, for instance, collaborated on the Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) prototype to detect life signs in piles of rubble after a disaster. The portable device is based on radar technology NASA uses for planetary exploration.
NASA continues to effectively engage the public, and this year, the International Space Apps Challenge drew more than 9,000 hackers, designers and explorers in 83 cities around the world to contribute their ideas to space exploration missions. The agency's Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) funded 148 interns and continued to help draw minority students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.
NASA launched the Exploration Design Challenge (EDC) to teach students about radiation and the challenges it presents for human space exploration. A cooperative effort with Lockheed Martin, the EDC allows students to become virtual crew members on the maiden Exploration Test Flight of the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, currently scheduled for September 2014. More than 112,000 students are current participants in the EDC, which aligns with the agency's STEM education priorities.
NASA's Twitter account, with 5.5 million followers, is the most followed in government while millions also engage with the space program through Facebook, Google+ and other platforms, and the agency's new Instagram profile drew more than 400,000 followers. NASA's website had its second-busiest year on record with 115 million visits.
NASA will build on the achievements of 2013 as it looks ahead to a busy new year where the agency is already preparing for more milestones in commercial space, the first flight test of the Orion spacecraft, five Earth Science launches, and many more accomplishments.
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