In 2016, NASA drove advances in technology, science, aeronautics and space exploration that enhanced the world’s knowledge, innovation, and stewardship of Earth.“This past year marked record-breaking progress in our exploration objectives,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We advanced the capabilities we’ll need to travel farther into the solar system while increasing observations of our home and the universe, learning more about how to continuously live and work in space, and, of course, inspiring the next generation of leaders to take up our Journey to Mars and make their own discoveries.
”Solar System and Beyond
This illustration depicts NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, with its solar arrays and main antenna pointed toward the distant sun and Earth.
After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit July 4. Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Returning data and images to Earth gathered by NASA’s Space Network will keep scientists busy for years to come.
The Sept. 8 launch of NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission began a journey that could revolutionize our understanding of the early solar system. Called the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), the spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with and study the asteroid Bennu, and then return a sample of it to Earth in 2023.
NASA Administrator Bolden with agency scientists and engineers discussed the next steps for NASA’s next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, while also providing a rare glimpse of the telescope’s mirrors following completion of the final primary mirror segment in February. The biggest and most powerful space telescope ever designed now is being prepared for transport to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2017 for testing prior to final assembly and launch in 2018.
After years of preparatory studies, NASA in 2016 formally started an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe. Called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), it will aid researchers in their efforts to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. It also will discover new worlds outside our solar system — known as exoplanets — and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life.This artist’s concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.
Credits: NASA/W. Stenzel
NASA’s Kepler mission in May verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of exoplanets to date — more than doubling the number of confirmed planets from Kepler. This gave scientists hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth. Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets.
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, and the moon is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system.New research in May indicated solar explosions may have been the key to seeding life on Earth as we know it some 4 billion years ago.
Like sending sensors up into a hurricane, NASA announced in May it had successfully flown for the first time the four Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft through an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection. MMS now also holds the Guinness World Record for highest altitude fix of a GPS signal at 43,500 miles above the surface.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now is entering the final year of its epic voyage. While this historic science odyssey will conclude in September 2017, the spacecraft will first complete a daring two-part endgame. On Nov. 30, Cassini began a series of 20 weekly F-ring orbits, just past the outer edge of the main rings. Cassini’s final phase — called the grand finale — begins in April 2017.NASA’s New Horizons mission reached a major milestone in October when the last bits of science data from the Pluto flyby – stored on the spacecraft’s digital recorders since July 2015 – arrived safely on Earth.In June, the mission received the green light to fly onward to a 2019 rendezvous with an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69. In January, NASA announced it was formalizing its ongoing program for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) as the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). The office supervises all NASA-funded projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth’s orbit. It also takes a leadi