Once every three years, a panel of experts, academia and people from Nasa reviews proposals for the extension of different planetary science missions. The idea, according to the US space agency, is that these extended missions can leverage investment in order to perform continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission from scratch.
On Monday, Nasa announced that it had extended the planetary science missions of eight of its spacecraft due to their scientific productivity and potential to deepen human knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond. That means that ongoing missions like the Mars rover Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and some others will not only obtain valuable new science data, but in some cases, also allow the space agency to explore new targets with totally new science goals.
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The missions – Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), InSight lander, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, and New Horizons – have been selected for continuation, assuming their spacecraft remain healthy. Most of the missions will be extended for three years. However, OSIRIS-REx will be continued for nine years in order to reach a new destination (a new asteroid). and InSight will be continued until the end of 2022, unless the spacecraft’s electrical power allows for longer operations, a statement on the Nasa website explains.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer). The spacecraft is currently on its way back to Earth to deliver the samples of asteroid Bennu collected in 2020. According to Nasa, the OSIRIS-APEX team will redirect the spacecraft to encounter a new target: Apophis, an asteroid roughly 1,200 feet (roughly 370 meters) in diameter that will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth in 2029.
OSIRIS-APEX will enter orbit around Apophis soon after the asteroid’s Earth flyby, providing an unprecedented close-up look at this S-type asteroid – the second-most common type of asteroid found in the solar system. This extended mission plans to study changes in the asteroid caused by its close flyby of Earth and use the spacecraft’s gas thrusters to attempt to dislodge and study the dust and small rocks on and below Apophis’ surface.
The Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover have driven more than 16 miles (27 km) on the surface of Mars, exploring the history of habitability in Gale Crater, where the rover landed in 2012. In its fourth extended mission, MSL will climb to higher elevations, exploring the critical sulfate-bearing layers which give unique insights into the history of water on the red planet.
Another key mission that has been extended is New Horizons. Launched in 2006, this interplanetary probe flew past Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper belt object Arrokoth in 2019. In its second extended mission, New Horizons will continue to explore the distant solar system out to 63 astronomical units from Earth, according to the Nasa statement.
Each extended mission proposal was reviewed by a panel of independent experts drawn from academia, industry, and Nasa. In total, more than 50 reviewers evaluated the scientific return of the respective proposals. Two independent review chairs oversaw the process and, based on the panel evaluations, validated that these eight science missions hold substantial potential to continue bringing new discoveries and addressing compelling new science questions, the statement adds.