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NASA’s Top Exploration and Discovery Stories of 2007


WASHINGTON - NASA moved forward in 2007 to explore the solar system, expand our knowledge of Earth and its place in the universe, and build the International Space Station. The space shuttle flew three highly successful missions to continue the station’s assembly and construction began on projects designed to send astronauts to the moon, where they will establish a permanent outpost and prepare for eventual voyages to Mars. Space science missions were launched to Mars and the asteroid belt. Closer to home, Earth science satellites made a number of key discoveries, such as how waterways beneath an Antarctic ice stream affect sea level and the world’s largest ice sheet.

NASA began laying the foundation for the future of space exploration in 2007. Construction projects across the agency supported the Constellation Program, which is developing next-generation spacecraft and systems to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. All major contracts for the Ares I rocket were awarded in 2007. Hard hats, cranes and bulldozers were the equipment of choice at space facilities across the country. Construction got under way at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, N.M., where NASA will hold the Constellation Program’s first flight tests in 2008.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers are erecting a new lightning protection system at the Constellation launch pad, 39-B. A new test stand for rocket engines is being built at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. NASA’s lunar architects unveiled more details of their plans for a lunar outpost, complete with small, pressurized rovers that would travel in pairs, and possible astronaut housing that could be moved from one location to another. NASA engineers also sought opportunities to test lunar equipment ideas at sites on Earth that are similar to the moon, such as the Arizona desert and the Antarctic tundra. For more information, visit:

Space Shuttle Commander Pam Melroy and the International Space Station’s Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson made history Oct. 25 when shuttle Discovery and the station docked, and the hatches between the two ships were opened. As the two women shook hands 200 miles above Earth, they became the first female spacecraft commanders to lead shuttle and station missions simultaneously. Whitson, who also holds the distinction of being the first woman to command a station mission, has accumulated more total time in orbit than any other female space traveler. For more information, visit:

NASA’s Phoenix mission launched Aug. 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a nine-month trek to Mars. The robotic lander is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet May 25, 2008, and begin a close examination of Mars’ northern polar region. Phoenix will be the first mission to touch the planet’s water-ice. Its robotic arm will dig into an icy layer believed to lie just beneath the Martian surface. The robot explorer will study the history of the water in the ice, monitor weather in the polar region, and investigate whether the subsurface environment in the far-northern plains of Mars has ever been favorable for sustaining microbial life. For more information, visit:

NASA launched three successful space shuttle missions in June, August and October to deliver pieces of the International Space Station, allowing it to grow in size, volume and power production in 2007. The electricity generated by the station and used aboard the outpost more than doubled this year. The station’s six solar panels now extend to more than half an acre of surface area. NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts safely conducted 22 spacewalks devoted to building and maintaining the station in 2007. A 23rd spacewalk is planned for Dec. 18. That will match a record for the most spacewalks in a single year. For more information, visit:

Scientists using NASA satellites discovered an extensive network of waterways beneath a fast-moving Antarctic ice stream. The waterways provide clues as to how “leaks” in the system affect sea level and the world’s largest ice sheet. Data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite and data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System on NASA’s Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite provided a multi-dimensional view of changes in the elevation of the icy surface above a large subglacial lake and surrounding areas during a three-year period. Those changes suggest the lake drained to the ocean. For more information, visit:

NASA researchers designed and built a new silicon carbide differential amplifier integrated circuit chip that has exceeded 4,000 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius - a breakthrough that represents a 100-fold increase in what had been achieved previously. Prior to this development, such integrated circuit chips had operated at these high temperatures for only a few hours or less before degrading or failing. The extremely durable transistors and packaging technologies will enable highly functional but physically small integrated circuitry to be used for sensing and to control electronics within harsh environments, such as hot sections of jet engines as well as long-duration spacecraft. For more information, visit:

Two new human spaceflight milestones were set by NASA astronauts in 2007. Sunita Williams, the International Space Station’s Expedition 14 and Expedition 15 flight engineer, broke the record for the longest duration single spaceflight by a woman, spending 195 consecutive days in orbit. She also completed the most spacewalks by a woman, logging 29 hours and 17 minutes during four spacewalks, and was the first astronaut to run a marathon while in orbit. At the end of the Expedition 14 mission in April, William’s crewmate, Mike Lopez-Alegria, led all astronauts in the number of spacewalks with 10 and the amount of time spent spacewalking with 67 hours and 40 minutes. The time was accumulated during two shuttle flights and his stay on the station. Lopez-Alegria’s 215-day station mission also marked the longest single spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut. For more information, visit:

The brightest stellar explosion ever recorded was seen by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based optical telescopes. The discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars were relatively common in the early universe, and a similar explosion in our own galaxy could be imminent. This new supernova may offer a rare glimpse of how the first stars died. It is unprecedented to find such a massive star and witness its death. The discovery of the supernova provided evidence that the deaths of such massive stars are fundamentally different from theoretical predictions.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, with the Air Force Research Lab and Boeing Phantomworks, successfully completed flight experiments for the X-48B Blended Wing Body advanced aircraft at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center this year. The aircraft is a hybrid configuration combining the best attributes of a conventional tube-and-wing aircraft with a flying wing. It has the potential to meet expected future Next Generation Air Transportation System requirements for low noise, low emissions and high performance. With certain modifications to the design, the Blended Wing Body also has the potential to land and take off on shorter runways than current aircraft. The experiments demonstrated the basic flying qualities of the X-48B and the effectiveness of the on-board flight control system. For more information, visit:

NASA and 13 space agencies from around the world released the framework for a global exploration strategy in May 2007. The document, “The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination,” reflects a shared vision of space exploration focused on solar system destinations where humans may someday live and work. It represents an important step in an evolving process toward a comprehensive global approach. The framework also allows individual nations to share their strategies and efforts so all can achieve their exploration goals more effectively. For more information, visit:

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