21 critical future NASA missions

NASA space plans include trips to Mars, Jupiter, Pluto and the Sun as well as climate change operations

While NASA's 2011 budget got a lot of attention for what it cut - the Constellation program mostly - it does include funding for a ton of other critical satellite and robotic missions.  These missions include a huge planned mission to Mars as well as other operations that will send spacecraft to Pluto, Jupiter, Mercury, Pluto and the Sun.  New climate change research and observation satellites are also heavily funded. Here we take a look at 21 new or ongoing missions NASA will be hot on this year and in the near future. 

Hot space projects produce cool cosmic discoveries 

1. Mars calling: NASA calls this the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever.  The Mars Science Laboratory should launch before Christmas this year.  The Mars Science Laboratory is actually a rover that will drive around the reed planet looking for that elusive data that will tell us whether Mars ever was, or is still is capable of supporting life.  The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said.   The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life. 

2. Carbon footprint: NASA is looking to develop the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission for launch early in 2013.  The satellite is expected to measure CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere whose levels, since the beginning of the industrial age, have increased by about 38%.  The original OCO satellite failed before it reached orbit, NASA said. 

3. With grace: The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite system's current goal is to accurately map variations in the Earth's gravity field over its 5-year mission. NASA is expected to launch a GRACE follow-on mission in 2015 that looks further at what NASA calls key global climate data sets.

 4. Go for glory: Expected to launch this year, Glory is a low Earth orbit (LEO) research satellite designed collect data on the properties of aerosols, including black carbon, in the Earth's atmosphere and climate system. It is also designed to collect data on solar irradiance for the long-term effects on the Earth climate record. Understanding whether the temperature increase and climate changes are by-products of natural events or whether the changes are caused by man-made sources is of primary importance, NASA said. 

5. Watching the ocean: Aquarius has been delayed over 12 months but when it launches this year it will have as its mission to measure global sea surface salinity. The satellite will provide a global view of salinity needed for climate studies, NASA said. The Aquarius / SAC-D mission being developed by NASA and the Space Agency of Argentina. 

6. Climate changes: Expected to launch in 2011 is the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project.  The NPPOESS satellite will collect land, ocean, and atmospheric data to the meteorological and global climate change communities.  It will provide atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, humidity sounding, land and ocean biological productivity, and cloud and aerosol properties. 

7. Watching the land: Continuing one of NASA's most successful satellite systems will be the Landsat Data Continuity Mission slated for 2012. Originally launched in 1972, Landsat satellite images are used for everything from agriculture, geology and forestry to mapping, global change research and emergency response.  At the heart of the mission is the need to track land use and change, NASA said. 

8. Digging the dirt: The Soil Moisture Active & Passive satellite will provide global measurements of soil moisture and its freeze/thaw condition. Such measurements will be used to aid in understanding the processes that link water, energy and carbon cycles, and to extend the capabilities of weather and climate prediction models, NASA said. The system is still in the developmental stage.

9. Icy cold: The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESAT-2) will begin development this year.   The satellite is expected to further measure the Earth's ice sheet mass, cloud and aerosol levels as well as land topography and vegetation, NASA said.  The current ICESAT mission has amassed over 1.9 billion measurements while in orbit through completion of its 2009 spring campaign, NASA said.

 10.  Red atmosphere: Getting an up-close look at the atmosphere around Mars is the main mission of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite looking to hit space in 2013.   According to NASA the $485 million mission will explore why Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported the presence of liquid water on the surface. MAVEN will make definitive scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will offer clues about the planet's history.

 11. Twins: Scheduled for this year, NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) is expected to determine the structure of the lunar interior, from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the Moon. GRAIL will actually feature twin spacecraft that will fly in tandem orbits around the moon for several months to measure its gravity field in detail. As a secondary objective, GRAIL will extend knowledge gained from the Moon to the other terrestrial planets, NASA said. 

12. NASA says a tiny satellite - under 300 lbs -- called Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer-(LADEE) could launch by 2013.  Its goal would be to study the Moon's atmosphere and be linked to two mini-landers as nodes in an International Lunar Network (ILN) of 8-10 geophysical stations, NASA said.  The ILN idea is still in development. 

13. Jupiter bound: Another mission set to launch this year will ultimately take a closer look at Jupiter. Called Juno, the mission will be the first in which a spacecraft is placed in a highly elliptical polar orbit around the giant planet to understand its formation, evolution and structure. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2011, reaching Jupiter in 2016. JUNO will orbit Jupiter 32 times, skimming about 3,000 miles over the planet's cloud tops for approximately one year. The mission will be the first solar powered spacecraft designed to operate despite the great distance from the sun, NASA said. 

14. NASA says the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) continues to make progress toward a 2014 launch.  The Webb telescope will be the most sensitive infrared space telescope ever built. It is designed to see the farthest galaxies in the universe and the light of the first stars; study young planetary systems; and look for conditions suitable for life on planets around other stars.  The telescope will feature a large mirror, a little over 21-feet in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Key to the James Web will be its Mid-Infrared Instrument which NASA says will be the most sensitive mid-infrared detector ever flown in space, NASA said.

 15. Radiation gusts: NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes include two satellites and are slated to launch in 2012. Their mission will study how accumulations of space radiation form and change during space storms. Space weather storms involve constantly changing magnetic and electric fields and gusts of radiation particles that produce intense energy. This energy can black out long-distance communications over entire continents and disrupt the global navigational system, NASA said. 

16. Here comes the sun: The Solar Orbiter isn't a NASA mission but rather a European Space Agency mission that will partially use NASA technology.   According to NASA, the Solar Orbiter will get close-up views of the Sun's polar regions and its back-side and will tune its orbit to the direction of the Sun's rotation as to allow the spacecraft to observe one specific area for much longer than currently possible. This will provide better insight on the evolution of sunspots, active regions, coronal holes and other solar features and phenomenon, NASA said. 

17. X-Ray vision: The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) will let astronomers study the universe in high energy X-rays. Slated for 2012, NuSTAR use its powerful x-ray system to look for black holes and map radioactive material in young supernovas, NASA said. 

18. Studying Mercury: NASA's Mercury planet exploration team in December said it created critical tool for the first orbital observations of the planet - a global map of Mercury that will help scientists pinpoint craters, faults, and other features that will be essential for the space agency's extensive 2011 mission. NASA's satellite MESSENGER (The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER) will become the first spacecraft to actually orbit Mercury -- about 730 times -- beaming back pictures and never-before-available pictures and information on the planet.

 19. Sun spotter: NASA's 6,800lb Solar Dynamics Observatory will this month hit its orbit around the Earth and start beaming back its first photos. The $808 million spacecraft will eventually send back what NASA called a prodigious rush of pictures about sunspots, solar flares and a variety of other never-before-seen solar events. The idea is to get a better idea of how the Sun works and let scientists better forecast the space weather to offer earlier warnings to protect astronauts and satellites, NASA said. 

20. Vast beyond: NASA launched the New Horizons satellite in January 2006 and the 1,054lb satellite will get it close to the dwarf planet sometime around July 2015.  Once it is there - or actually within 6,000 miles of the planet and its largest moon, Charon -- New Horizons will take close-up pictures in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best pictures of Pluto will depict surface features as small as 200 feet (about 60 meters) across, NASA said. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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