Have you noticed that NASA seems to be extending the missions of its spacecraft and landers more and more often in recent years? Well, so have I. Not only are these extremely complex and ambitious endeavors routinely achieving their primary goals, they are being re-tasked to pursue new and potentially fruitful paths of exploration with impressive regularity.
Take New Horizons as an example. When it was launched, in 2006, the spacecraft’s primary mission was to make the first visit to Pluto. Along the way, it collected useful data about an interesting asteroid and Jupiter. When it arrived at its primary target, just a year ago, New Horizons sent back spectacular images of Pluto and its moon Charon, along with a stream of invaluable data about the dwarf planet and its satellites.
Mission accomplished, right? Well not quite, thought NASA’s scientists. Last October, New Horizons was instructed to fire its thrusters and set course for 2014 MU69, an inviting object in the Kuiper Belt about one billion miles closer to the definitive (if still somewhat elusive) edge of the Solar System. Last week, NASA confirmed that funding has been granted for this previously unplanned leg of the spacecraft’s journey, and it is expected to arrive at the new target on New Year’s Day, 2019.
Spirit and Opportunity on Mars
Back in January 2004, NASA successfully landed two probes – Opportunity and Spirit – on the surface of Mars. Originally, the plan was for the rovers to explore the planet’s surface for three months each. However, they performed so well that their missions were extended (and funded), at first, for a few months at a time – and then in chunks of more than a year. NASA was last able to communicate with Spirit in 2010, but Opportunity continues its work to this day, more than 12 years beyond its planned usefulness.
Dawn and the Extension of Other Missions
Such funding extensions are not automatic, but neither are they unusual. When NASA announced that New Horizons has received the necessary additional funding, it also extended eight other missions, most of them focused on Mars. Among the recipients not dedicated to the red planet is the Dawn spacecraft, which visited the protoplanet Vesta, in 2011, and is now orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres – both located in the Solar System’s asteroid belt. (NASA posted the video loop of Ceres provided by Dawn that appears to the right or below, depending on your device.)
This week, news arrived that spacecraft Juno has successfully entered a polar orbit around Jupiter. The plan is for Juno to sweep around the gas giant in an elliptical pattern 37 times over the next couple of years, sending back fascinating images and invaluable data. Then, in February 2018, on command from NASA, the spacecraft will destroy itself by diving into Jupiter’s incredibly dense atmosphere. Or maybe, just maybe, Juno’s exploration of the Jovian system will be extended for months or even years beyond.