IIt’s not hard to keep track of NASA’s big-ticket items – the high-visibility spacecraft that typically carry equally high price tags and grab headlines. There’s the $150 billion International Space Station; the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope; the $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars rover; and then, of course, the $4.1 billion space launch system lunar rocket per flight. That’s an impressive handful for any national space agency.
But NASA is more than its flagship missions. Far less discussed by most people is the herd of spacecraft the space agency is operating throughout the solar system at any given time. At last count, NASA was operating no less than 14 active missions in non-Earth orbit – from the Parker Solar Probe, which studies the sun; the Voyager 1 and 2 missions, which perform reconnaissance of the outer solar system; to the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter; to the fleet of ships on or in orbit around Mars; to various spacecraft studying various asteroids, and more. Missions range from the relatively young — Perseverance landed on Mars just over a year ago — to the very old: Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the first star wars the film was the number one hit at the domestic box office.
This week, NASA doubled down no less than eight of its deep space probes whose future was uncertain due to budget pressures, extending their current missions by an average of three years. It was an easy call, thanks to the quality science they continue to deliver and the simple fact that even after years in space, their hardware continues to perform as expected. The eight missions are the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance and MAVEN orbiters, all of which orbit the Red Planet; the InSight lander and the Curiosity rover, both on the surface of Mars; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has circled the moon since 2009; the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, which collected samples from the asteroid Bennu and will bring them back to Earth in 2029; and the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper Belt Object Arrokoth four years later.
Missions are extended for various reasons, depending on the spacecraft. In addition to the science they already collect, Mars orbiters can also serve as data relay stations for future Mars landers, both uncrewed and, one day, crewed. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can do the same for uncrewed spacecraft landing on the moon. New Horizons goes on a hunt for potential new Kuiper Belt objects to barnstorm. OSIRIS-Rex takes a detour to orbit the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, before eventually lifting off to return home and bring back his precious pieces of Bennu.
The announcement of contract extensions for the eight outperforming ships didn’t make a big splash this week, but it should have. NASA’s budget is tiny – just 0.4% of total US federal spending – but it takes advantage of it to maintain nothing less than an interplanetary flight wing. Spacecraft do their job quietly, but spectacularly. They have gained every extra year of life NASA engineers can give them.
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