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Published:December 27th, 2006 07:28 EST
NASA's Top Exploration and Discovery Stories of the Year

NASA's Top Exploration and Discovery Stories of the Year

By SOP newswire

WASHINGTON - NASA moved forward in 2006 to extend humanity's exploration of the solar system and learn more about the universe and our home planet. The space shuttle got back to work building the International Space Station, and the agency began developing the next generation of spacecraft and outlined plans for returning to the moon as a stepping stone toward Mars. Space science missions found new evidence of water on Mars, sent the first-ever probes toward Pluto, brought back dust from a comet and launched new instruments to study the sun and the weather on Earth.

NEXT STOP - THE MOON America's Vision for Space Exploration, the long-term plan for sending humans to Mars and beyond, moved ahead in August with the selection of Lockheed Martin Corp. as the prime contractor to build the Orion crew exploration vehicle, to be operational by 2014. Orion and its astronaut crew will be propelled into space by the new Ares I launch vehicle. Larger equipment bound for the moon and Mars will ride into space atop the Ares V heavy launch vehicle. The Ares I successfully completed its systems requirement review during the fall of 2006. The next generation launch vehicles will be based on advanced versions of technology from the Apollo and shuttle programs but also will employ newly developed systems and hardware with far greater capabilities. In December, NASA unveiled elements of a Global Exploration Strategy and lunar architecture to explain the rationale for returning to the moon for further exploration and to help prepare for later journeys to Mars and other destinations. For more information, visit:

SHUTTLE AND STATION BACK TO BUSINESS During the space shuttle's 25th anniversary year, three missions resumed construction work on the International Space Station. Space shuttle Discovery's STS-121 mission in July was the second flight to the station since the Columbia accident in 2003. Astronauts proved new engineering designs and safety techniques and demonstrated that if needed the shuttle's robotic arm could serve as a platform for emergency repairs. Discovery also delivered a new crew member, increasing the station's crew size to three for the first time since May 2003. NASA followed up that flight with launches of STS-115 in September and STS-116 in December. The shuttles delivered and attached a critical piece of the station's girder-like backbone, including a new set of solar arrays to provide up to one quarter of the station's power, and reconfigured the station's power and thermal control systems. Astronauts also installed a new station component, giving crew members more room to live and work in orbit. The stage is now set for an active 2007 that will see the station's size and research capabilities dramatically grow. For images and information, visit: and

HUBBLE SERVICING MISSION 'GO' In late October, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced plans for a fifth space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to extend and improve the observatory's capabilities through 2013. The announcement reversed an earlier decision, made following the Columbia accident, that further Hubble servicing missions would no longer be feasible. NASA revised that decision after a detailed analysis of safety issues for the shuttle crew and procedures necessary to carry out a successful repair and upgrade mission. The flight to Hubble is targeted for launch in 2008. During 2006, the Hubble continued to make unprecedented observations that included an image of the dimmest stars ever seen in any globular cluster and the discovery of 16 extrasolar planet candidates. For more information, visit:

A WET RED PLANET? New NASA images from the Mars Global Surveyor revealed bright new deposits seen in two gullies on Mars. The images suggest water carried sediment through the gullies sometime during the past seven years. These observations give the strongest evidence to date that water still flows occasionally on the surface of the red planet. The new findings heighten intrigue about the potential for microbial life on Mars. Other Mars program activities included NASA's long-lived robotic rover Opportunity achieving the long-held goal of reaching the massive Victoria Crater, with the rover beginning to explore layered rocks in cliffs ringing the crater. While Opportunity spent its first week at the crater, NASA's newest eye in the Martian sky, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, photographed the rover and its surroundings. The new level of detail in the images from the orbiter will help guide the rover's exploration of Victoria. Coupled with other scientific instruments, the spacecraft will change our understanding of the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for future surface missions. For more information, visit:

DEEP SPACE DISCOVERIES The launch of the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto in January began an extraordinary year of deep space activities. Scheduled to arrive at Pluto in 2015, the spacecraft will encounter Jupiter in 2007. NASA's Stardust mission completed a 2.88 billion mile round-trip odyssey to capture and return comet and interstellar dust particles to Earth. Scientists believe these rare samples may provide answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. The Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The unusual occurrence of liquid water so near the surface of Enceladus raises many new questions about the mysterious moon. Cassini also discovered two new rings around Saturn, confirmed the presence of two others and photographed something never before seen on another planet - a hurricane-like storm at Saturn's south pole. For more information, visit:

WEATHER AND CLIMATE STUDIES NASA's Earth research provided new discoveries during 2006 about our home planet and its climate. The agency launched the first satellite to provide three-dimensional images of clouds and a weather satellite to provide timely environmental information to meteorologists and the public. NASA also completed its "A-train" of six satellites flying in close proximity around Earth to gain a better understanding of key factors related to climate change. Research activities included a comprehensive hurricane study on how winds and dust from Africa influence the life of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists studied the discovery that this year's ozone hole over the Antarctic had exceeded earlier observations for area and depth. Scientists also observed the reduction of the ocean's primary food supply, which potentially could threaten fisheries and ecosystems in a warming climate. Researchers also examined the effects of pollution moving around the world; improved wildfire and hurricane tracking; and studied the changing landscape of global ice and snow. Scientists announced that, based on Earth's average temperature, 2005 was one of the five warmest years in a century, and 2006 was one of the10 warmest. For more information, visit:

A NEW DIRECTION FOR AERONAUTICS NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate restructured its research portfolio in 2006 to return to long-term, cutting-edge, fundamental research. This ensures the directorate conducts the high-quality, innovative research required to enable the next generation air transportation system and supports the nation's Vision for Space Exploration. Today, through close collaboration with academia, industry and other federal agencies, NASA's aeronautics research portfolio is better positioned to provide research that is directly aligned with national priorities. For more information, visit:

HERE COMES THE SUN NASA research on Earth's nearest star provided many firsts in 2006. Researchers developed a computer simulation to create a model of the sun's outer atmosphere. Scientists predicted the next solar activity cycle to be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the previous one. In March, NASA and Libyan scientists conducted joint activities to observe and study a total solar eclipse. This complemented the launch of NASA's twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories mission (STEREO) spacecraft that will help researchers construct the first-ever three-dimensional views of the sun. These research activities may provide information to help mitigate effects of solar storms, which can disrupt satellite orbits and electronics, interfere with radio communication and threaten astronaut safety. For more information, visit:

NASA'S NOBEL LAUREATE On Dec.10, Dr. John C. Mather, senior astrophysicist and senior project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., received the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics in Stockholm. Mather is the first NASA civil-servant employee to win the Nobel Prize. Mather and George Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley were recognized for "their discovery of the black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." Mather coordinated the science work of NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, which helped validate the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe. For more information, visit:

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION NASA worked in 2006 toward expanding its relationships with the spacefaring nations of the world. Administrator Michael Griffin and the leaders of other space agencies from around the world approved a new configuration and assembly plan for the International Space Station. Griffin also made landmark visits to India and China to learn more about the emerging space programs of those nations. Deputy Administrator Shana Dale also met with leaders of the world's space agencies and launched an effort to engage other nations in building a Global Exploration Strategy to help ensure broad and active international cooperation as NASA pursues the Vision for Space Exploration.

For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit: