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Moon, Mars, and more: NASA extends 8 planetary missions

NASA has decided to extend a range of active planetary science missions, a move that’s certain to delight scientists attached to the projects.

The space agency said the spacecraft — the oldest of which launched more than 20 years ago — had been selected to continue their operations because of their “scientific productivity and potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.”

The missions include Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover), InSight lander, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, and New Horizons (more details below).

Most of the selected missions will continue for an additional three years, provided no faults occur with the spacecraft, NASA said. A couple of exceptions include OSIRIS-REx, which will carry on for nine years, and InSight, which will continue until the end of this year unless the spacecraft’s electrical power system allows for longer operation.

“Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s large investments in exploration, allowing continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to obtain valuable new science data, and in some cases, allows NASA to explore new targets with totally new science goals.”

Here’s a brief summary of the missions that NASA has chosen to extend:

Mars Odyssey — launched 2001
The Mars Odyssey orbiter will perform new thermal studies of rocks and ice below the planet’s surface, monitor the radiation environment, and continue its long-running climate monitoring campaign, NASA said. It will also continue to offer support for other Mars spacecraft.

MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) — launched 2005
In its sixth extended mission, the MRO orbiter will study the evolution of Mars’ surface, ices, active geology, and atmosphere and climate, and carry on supporting other Mars missions.

New Horizons — launched 2006
The New Horizons probe zipped by Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper belt object (KBO) Arrokoth in 2019. In its second extended mission, the spacecraft will continue to explore the distant solar system, with additional details of its mission coming at a later date.

LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) – launched 2009
NASA’s lunar orbiter has been cleared to continue studying the surface and geology of the moon. “The evolution of LRO’s orbit will allow it to study new regions away from the poles in unprecedented detail, including the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) near the poles where water ice may be found,” the space agency said. It added that LRO will also provide important support for NASA’s efforts to return humans to the moon in the next few years.

MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) — launched 2011
The MSL and its Curiosity rover have so far driven more than 16 miles (27 kilometers) across the surface of Mars, exploring the Gale Crater. This is the fourth time for MSL’s mission to be extended, and on this occasion, it will set about climbing to higher elevations on the red planet in an effort to gain unique insights into the history of water on Mars.

MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) — launched 2013
The MAVEN spacecraft has been studying the loss of the red planet’s gasses to space. As the sun’s activity level increases toward the maximum of its 11-year cycle, MAVEN’s ongoing observations will “deepen our understanding of how Mars’ upper atmosphere and magnetic field interact with the sun,” NASA said.

OSIRIS-APEX (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) — launched 2016
The OSIRIS-REx mission is at this very moment heading back to Earth to drop off the samples of asteroid Bennu that it collected in 2020. After completing its special delivery in 2023, the mission will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX as the spacecraft is redirected to attempt a close study of Apophis, an asteroid 1,200 feet (about 370 meters) in diameter that will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth in 2029.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) — launched 2018
NASA’s InSight lander has been performing the only active seismic station beyond Earth. Its seismic monitoring of “marsquakes” has provided scientists with data on Mars’ interior, formation, and current activity, with the mission set to continue this work.

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