NASA has long been at the very forefront of technology, boldly adventuring into the stars since its inception in 1958. Today, the administration competes with SpaceX for media attention, but not even Elon Musk's commercial space flight empire rivals NASA for dominion over the universe beyond the Earth's atmosphere. From decades-old technology being used again today, to a little bit of competition for everyone's favorite Mars rover, here are a few updates on what NASA is up to today.
Voyager 1 uses decades-old thrusters to get into position
This week, NASA's iconic Voyager 1 spacecraft turned on its secondary thrusters to correct its position for the first time in 37 years. Voyager 1, launched 40 years ago in October, has traveled 13 billion miles from home, which means communication between NASA and the craft takes 19 hours one-way.
The thrusters on the craft create extremely small bursts of power to re-orient Voyager so that its antennas are facing towards the earth. According to Suzanne Dodd, a project manager for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "... with these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years."
Scientists have started to notice the primary thrusters on the spacecraft faltering and requiring more time to push the antennas into place. The Jet Propulsion Lab was excited to find that the secondary thrusters had not degraded, allowing them to very efficiently control its movements, and putting them in a position to use similar techniques with the Voyager 2.
The Voyager 1 has the distinct pleasure of being the only man-made object in "interstellar space." It is the furthest object in the universe that Earth is able to actively communicate with and receive data from. Until the spacecraft runs out of energy for its secondary thrusters and its primary ones finally go offline, the Voyager 1 will likely remain one of NASA's most important data collection projects.
Even small successes such as the continued use of decades-quiet thrusters can mean billions of dollars saved in equipment costs, because there is no way to repair the probe once all of its mobility goes offline.
Mars Rover 2020: The first steps towards colonization
Curiosity, the semi-autonomous robot sent by NASA in 2011, has been the lone occupant of the Red Planet for the last 5 years. But in July of 2020, NASA will finally be sending a second rover to assist in data collection.
Curiosity's mission since its arrival has been to determine if Mars was ever capable of harboring microbial life. While there, the rover has captured thousands of stunning images of Martian landscape and beamed them back to mission control. It has also collected invaluable data regarding the composition of the planet's soil and has possibly detected evidence of flowing water that could be vital to human habitation someday in the near future.
But the 2020 Rover's mission also has a significantly wider range than the Curiosity's. The 2020 mission will have four distinct goals: determine whether there has ever been microbial life on the planet; create usable climate data that can be used to predict habitability; create a comprehensive map of the surface in order to facilitate exploration; and finally, "prepare for human exploration."
The rover will explore the planet's surface and collect data on the accessibility and abundance of natural resources. Accessibility is vitally important to Earthlings exploring the surface of distant planets, because very limited amounts of fuel, food and water can be sent with bold explorers. They must be able to use the environment to replenish their stockpiles, no matter how inhospitable it is.
The new rover looks very similar to Curiosity; design space is limited when so much tech needs to go on such a long and specific flight path. But the 2020 rover sports a few upgraded toys as well: updated cameras, landing gear and treads will help it to avoid some of the issues Curiosity has faced during its time on Mars.
Like the first probe, the 2020 rover will likely remain on Mars until it becomes inoperable, waiting alone on the planet until another mission arrives to collect its samples and hard drive.
Extended duty: Dawn remains hard at work orbiting Ceres
You may not have heard of NASA's Dawn probe; it doesn't have the legendary pedigree of the Voyager or the exciting headline-worthy mission of the Curiosity, but it's job out there in the vast expanse of space is just as critical. Just like the Voyager and the Curiosity, the Dawn has been dutifully collection data regarding Ceres, the largest dwarf planet in our solar system, from orbit.
Last month, NASA announced that it would be extending Dawn's mission time, moving the probe even closer to Ceres surface. Unlike the Curiosity, Dawn's mission will not bring it down to the planet it is surveying. In fact, part of the goal of the mission is to avoid disrupting the dwarf planet's atmosphere, climate or possible ecosystems in any way; as such, it will remain in orbit at over 100 miles away from the planet's surface.
This is the second time that Dawn has been given an extension on its mission, and while NASA has discussed sending the probe to another nearby asteroid, they have not yet made public any plans to make the craft undergo the first mission to orbit three bodies in space.
Dawn's sensors have allowed scientists to determine how much water there is on Ceres, as well as giving them significant data about its composition, climate and topology. It has confirmed that the dwarf planet has large deposits of ice and salt, interesting observations for a planet that gets as close to the sun as Ceres does.
Dawn is the only mission in NASA's history to orbit two different celestial bodies. Before it arrived at its mission destination, Ceres, it circled the asteroid Vesta between 2011 and 2012.