What's next for space agency? Future projects include mapping the moon's gravity field and studying the Mars atmosphere.
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Now that NASA's space shuttle program has ended with the safe return of Atlantis to earth, the agency is looking ahead to future space projects, including a study of the atmosphere of Mars and a project to map the moon's gravity field.
Atlantis landed Thursday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending 30 years of space exploration through shuttle craft, the first of which—Challenger--was launched in 1983.
While the event certainly marks the end of an era, it's hardly the swan song for NASA's exploration into space, as the agency has multiple missions in the works.
One is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, scheduled for launch in late 2013. The mission, which will send a specially designed craft to the Red Planet, is aimed at studying Mars' upper atmosphere in an attempt to determine the role that losing atmospheric gas has played in changing Mars' climate over time.
Scientists believe that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere that was able to sustain water flowing on its surface and thus able to maintain life, and MAVEN--part of NASA's Mars Scout mission--will explore what happened to thin out that atmosphere to the density it is today.
To do that, scientists will measure the amount of hydrogen compared to the amount of deuterium in Mars' atmosphere to ascertain its present ratio, and then compare it to the same ratio of the young planet, according to NASA. Scientists have estimated the latter from observations of hydrogen and deuterium in comets and asteroids, which they believe are fossils of the formation of the solar system.
By comparing these two ratios, scientists will be able to determine how much hydrogen and thus water has been lost over the lifetime of Mars, NASA said.
MAVEN is scheduled for launch between Nov. 18 and Dec. 7, 2013. It will take nearly a year to reach Mars, after which the mission itself will last another year.
Another NASA space mission will send two spacecraft simultaneously to orbit the moon on separate trajectories in an effort to create a high-resolution map of the moon's gravitational field.
The Gravity Recovery and Interior Library (GRAIL) mission's two crafts will be launched together but then separate from a launch vehicle and take about three to four months to reach their distinctive orbits around the moon. Then they will take two months to merge their orbits so one is following the other.
Scientists will take measurements from instruments that will fly aboard each craft and measure changes in their relative velocity to create the map. The information will be transmitted via radio signals that travel between the two spacecraft. NASA claims the results of the project will be the most accurate gravity map of the moon ever made.
GRAIL--part of NASA's Discovery program--is similar to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which has been mapping Earth's gravity since 2002. NASA aims to launch GRAIL's spacecrafts Sept. 8.
Yet another NASA mission next year aims to launch the first telescopes that can image the sky in the high-energy X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, a view previously limited because existing orbiting telescopes have not had the technology to do so, the space agency said.
NuStar, which is scheduled to launch next February and initially last for two years, will map selected regions of the sky to take a census of collapsed stars and black holes of different sizes and map recently synthesized material in remnants of young supernova to understand how stars explode and elements are created, among other projects.
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