NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampling Probe Completes Instrument Install/Assembly, Enters ‘Test Drive’ Phase

OSIRIS-Rex, the first American spacecraft ever aimed at snatching pristine samples from the surface of an asteroid and returning them to Earth for exquisite analysis by researchers world-wide with the most advanced science instruments has successfully completed its assembly phase and moved into the “test drive” phase – just ten months before blastoff, following installation of all its science instruments at Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities, near Denver, Colorado.

The launch window for OSIRIS-REx opens next fall on September 3, 2016 on a seven-year journey to asteroid Bennu and back. Bennu is a carbon-rich asteroid. OSIRIS-Rex will eventually return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

The science payload installation was recently completed with attachment of the vehicles three camera instrument suite of cameras and spectrometers known as OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite), which was was designed and built by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

OCAMS trio of instruments, PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam, will survey and globally map the surface of Bennu up close at a distance ranging from approximately 5 km to 0.7 km.

“PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam will be our mission’s eyes at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a statement.

“OCAMS will provide the imagery we need to complete our mission while the spacecraft is at the asteroid.”

“All in all it was flawless installation, with the three cameras and the control electronics making it on the spacecraft well in advance of when we originally planned these activities. In general, the OSIRIS-REx ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) flow has gone smoothly,” said Lauretta in a blog update.

The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft.  Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts
The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts

For the next five months, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer will undergo a rigorous regime of critical environmental testing to ensure the probe will survive the unforgiving extremes of vacuum, vibration and extreme temperatures it will experience during launch and throughout the life of its planned eight year mission.

The asteroid sampling spacecraft is tracking on budget and ahead of schedule.

“OSIRIS-REx is entering environmental testing on schedule, on budget and with schedule reserves,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“This allows us to have flexibility if any concerns arise during final launch preparations.”

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter wide asteroid.

The instruments were all installed as planned on the spacecraft deck over the past few months so they can all be subjected to the environmental testing together with the spacecraft bus.

“This milestone marks the end of the design and assembly stage,” said Lauretta, in a statement.

“We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back. This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.”

The tests will “simulate the harsh environment of space, including acoustical, separation and deployment shock, vibration, and electromagnetic interference. The simulation concludes with a test in which the spacecraft and its instruments are placed in a vacuum chamber and cycled through the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will face during its journey to Bennu,” say NASA officials.

Video caption: Engineers at Lockheed Martin move the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft onto a rotation fixture. This fixture supports the full weight of the spacecraft and acts as a hinge, orienting the spacecraft at a 90 degree angle, which allows engineers to access the top of the spacecraft much more easily. Credits: Lockheed Martin Corporation

The testing is done to uncover any issues lurking prior next September’s planned liftoff.

“This is an exciting time for the program as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to asteroid Bennu,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“The environmental test phase is an important time in the mission as it will reveal any issues with the spacecraft and instruments, while here on Earth, before we send it into deep space.”

After the testing is complete by next May, the spacecraft will ship from Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where it will undergo final prelaunch preparations and transport to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard
Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth.
Credit: NASA/Goddard

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.

“This is an exciting time,” says Lauretta.

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018. OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

OSIRIS-REx logo
OSIRIS-REx logo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

A History of Launch Failures: “Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard”

Over the 50-plus years since President John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech, spaceflight has proven to be hard. It doesn’t take much to wreck a good day to fly.

Befitting a Halloween story, rocket launches, orbital insertions, and landings are what make for sleepless nights. These make-or-break events of space missions can be things that go bump in the night: sometimes you get second chances and sometimes not. Here’s a look at some of the past mission failures that occurred at launch. Consider this a first installment in an ongoing series of articles – “Not Because They Are Easy.”

A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)
A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)

The evening of October 28, 2014, was another of those hard moments in the quest to explore and expand humanity’s presence in space. Ten years ago, Orbital Sciences Corporation sought an engine to fit performance requirements for a new launch vehicle. Their choice was a Soviet-era liquid fuel engine, one considered cost-effective, meeting requirements, and proving good margins for performance and safety. The failure of the Antares rocket this week could be due to a flaw in the AJ-26 or it could be from a myriad of other rocket parts. Was it decisions inside NASA that cancelled or delayed engine development programs and led OSC and Lockheed-Martin to choose “made in Russia” rather than America?

Here are other unmanned launch failures of the past 25 years:

Falcon 1, Flight 2, March 21, 2007. Fairings are hard. There are fairings that surround the upper stage engines and a fairing covering payloads.  Fairings must not only separate but also not cause collateral damage. The second flight of the Falcon 1 is an example of a 1st stage separation and fairing that swiped the second stage nozzle. Later, overcompensation by the control system traceable to the staging led to loss of attitude control; however, the launch achieved most of its goals and the mission was considered a success. (View: 3:35)

Proton M Launch, Baikonur Aerodrome, July 2, 2013. The Proton M is the Russian Space program’s workhorse for unmanned payloads. On this day, the Navigation, Guidance, and Control System failed moments after launch. Angular velocity sensors of the guidance control system were installed backwards. Fortunately, the Proton M veered away from its launch pad sparing it damage.

Ariane V Maiden Flight, June 4, 1996. The Ariane V was carrying an ambitious ESA mission called Cluster – a set of four satellites to fly in tetrahedral formation to study dynamic phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The ESA launch vehicle reused flight software from the successful Ariane IV. Due to differences in the flight path of the Ariane V, data processing led to a data overflow – a 64 floating point variable overflowing a 16 bit integer. The fault remained undetected and flight control reacted in error. The vehicle veered off-course, the structure was stressed and disintegrated 37 seconds into flight. Fallout from the explosion caused scientists and engineers to don protective gas masks. (View: 0:50)

Delta II, January 17, 1997. The Delta II is one of the most successful rockets in the history of space flight, but not on this day. Varied configurations change up the number of solid rocket motors strapped to the first stage. The US Air Force satellite GPS IIR-1 was to be lifted to Earth orbit, but a Castor 4A solid rocket booster failed seconds after launch. A hairline fracture in the rocket casing was the fault. Both unspent liquid and solid fuel rained down on the Cape, destroying launch equipment, buildings, and even parked automobiles. This is one of the most well documented launch failures in history.

Compilation of Early Launch Failures. Beginning with several of the early failures of Von Braun’s V2, this video compiles many failures over a 70 year period. The early US space program endured multiple launch failures as they worked at a breakneck speed to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. NASA did not yet exist. The Air Force and Army had competing designs, and it was the Army with the German rocket scientists, including Von Braun, that launched the Juno 1 rocket carrying Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.

One must always realize that while spectacular to launch viewers, a rocket launch has involved years of development, lessons learned, and multiple revisions. The payloads carried involve many hundreds of thousands of work-hours. Launch vehicle and payloads become quite personal. NASA and ESA have offered grief counseling to their engineers after failures.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Kennedy’s Rice University Speech, September 12, 1962

The Thirty-Ninth Anniversary of the Last Moonwalk

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On December 13, 1972, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene A. Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt made the final lunar EVA or moonwalk of the final Apollo mission. Theirs was the longest stay on the Moon at just over three days and included over twenty-two hours spent exploring the lunar surface during which they collected over 250 pounds of lunar samples.

To commemorate the thirty-ninth anniversary of this last EVA, NASA posted a picture of Schmitt on the lunar surface as its ‘Image of the Day.’ 

Apollo 17, the only lunar mission to launch at night. Image Credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Apollo 17 launched on a Saturn V rocket on December 7, 1972. Four days later on December 11, Cernan and Schmitt moved into the Lunar Module Challenger and descended to a touchdown in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Command Module Pilot Ron Evans, meanwhile, stayed in orbit aboard the Command Module America.

The Taurus-Littrow valley was chosen as the best landing spot to take advantage of Apollo 17’s capabilities. It was a “J mission,” one designed for extended EVAs that would take the astronauts further from the LM than any previous missions using the Lunar Rover. It was also a geologically interesting area. Here, the astronauts would be able to reach and collect samples from the old lunar highlands as well as relatively young volcanic regions. For this latter goal, Apollo 17’s greatest tool was its LMP, Schmitt.

When NASA began looking for its first group of astronauts in 1959, candidates had to be affiliated with the military, trained engineers, and have logged at least 1,500 hours of flying time in jets. The same basic criteria were applied to the second and third group of astronauts selected in 1962 and 1963 respectively.

Cernan's Apollo 17 lunar suit is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, just one of the 137 million Apollo-era artifacts in the museum's collection. Image Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The fourth group brought a change. In June 1965, six trained scientists joined NASA’s astronaut corps. For this group, PhDs were a necessity and the previous flight hours requirement was dropped. Three of the men selected were physicists, two were physicians, and one, Schmitt, was a trained geologist.

Schmitt had explored the geological possibilities of a a lunar mission as a civilian. Before he joined NASA, he worked with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. There he devised training programs designed to teach astronauts enough about geology as well as photographic and telescopic mapping to make their journeys to the Moon as fruitful as possible. He was among the astrogeologists that instructed NASA’s astronauts during their geological field trips.

After joining the astronaut corps, Schmitt spent 53 weeks catching up to his colleagues in flight proficiency. He also spent hundreds of hours learning to fly both the Lunar Module and the Command Module. All the while, he remained an integral part of the astronauts’ lunar geology training, often assisting crews in finding and collecting the right kinds of rocks from a control station in Houston during a lunar mission.

Schmitt’s lunar companion, Gene Cernan, was an Apollo veteran. As the LMP on Apollo 10, he had flown within eight miles of the lunar surface but didn’t have enough fuel — or NASA’s blessing — to actually land. As commander of Apollo 17, he spent more time on the Moon than any other man. As commander, he entered the LM after Schmitt at the end of their final moonwalk. His bootprints remain the most recent human-made mark on the lunar surface.

Cernan and Schmitt abord the LM Challenger during their Apollo 17 mission. Image Credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Space News for July 30, 1999

Deep Space 1 Missed Photo Opportunity with Asteroid

NASA’s advanced Deep Space 1 probe missed its chance to catch pictures of Asteroid Braille when it passed only 10 miles away. The spacecraft’s auto-navigation system lost track of the asteroid’s target at the last minute, and it only caught photos of open space.

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Titan Covered by Oily Oceans

Recent photographs from the Keck observatory at Hawaii have revealed oceans of liquid hydrocarbons on Saturn’s moon Titan – including many found on Earth before life developed. When it reaches Saturn in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft will drop a probe onto the surface of Titan to accurately determine the composition of its oceans.

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Kazakhstan-Russian Commission Meets to Discuss Launch Problems

A joint commission of Russian and Kazakhstan officials met today to try and iron out their recent problems. After its recent ban of all launches from the Baikonur cosmodrome, the Kazakhstan government has wanted more control and a larger revenue share of Russian space launches.

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Lunar Eclipse Doesn’t Damage Prospector

Although it was a serious concern to NASA engineers, Lunar Prospector didn’t suffer any damage when it passed into a partial lunar eclipse – away from the Sun’s power to recharge its batteries. Prospector will crash onto the moon’s surface on Saturday in the hope of discovering ice.

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Space News for July 29, 1999

Moon Crash Will Also Help Fulfill Geologist’s Last Wish

Killed in a car crash in Australia in 1997, Gene Shoemaker – co-discoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet – will have his ashes scattered on the moon when the Lunar Prospector crashes in search of water later this week.

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Cosmonauts Perform Final Mir Spacewalk

Mir cosmonauts spent nearly 6 hours outside the battered spacestation installing equipment, and unfolding an antenna. The cosmonauts tested the potential of the antenna, and then disposed of it in space. They’ll return on August 28th, after which the station will probably remain vacant until it crashes back to Earth in early 2000.

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NASA Confirms Columbia’s Fuel Leak

With the Space Shuttle Columbia safely on the ground, NASA engineers have had the opportunity to examine the fuel leak. After an inspection, they’ve confirmed three tiny holes in one of the shuttle’s engine nozzles. Although it didn’t cause any damage, NASA engineers confirmed that it was a little too close for comfort.

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New Extrasolar Planet Discovered Around Iota Horologii

Astronomers have discovered the newest extrasolar planet orbiting a sunlike star in Iota Horologii. Twice the size of Jupiter, but with a similar orbit to the Earth, the planet was discovered by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

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Space News for July 28, 1999

Safe Landing for Space Shuttle Columbia

After an extremely short mission to deploy the Chandra X-Ray observatory, the Space Shuttle Columbia returned safely to Earth piloted by Eileen Collins – the first woman ever to land a shuttle. Columbia had been in space for five days.

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NASA Could Suffer Drastic Budget Cuts

A House subcommittee has approved a 10% cut of NASA’s annual budget. If this goes through, Administrator Daniel Goldin suggests it will result in mass layoffs, the closure of 2-3 centers, and delay the deployment of the space station.

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NASA Considers Future of Space Travel

Robert Frisbee, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on future generations of spacecraft that will help cross interstellar space, including such exotic technologies as antimatter, fusion and solar-sails.

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Study Reveals Less Asteroids Than Previously Thought

At a recent press conference, NASA’s David Rabinowitz said that revised estimates of NEOs (Near Earth Objects) are 50% less than previously thought – with only 500 to 1,000 objects. However, he also went on to mention that we’re due for a damaging collision within the next century.

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Space News for July 27, 1999

Prospector Could be Disabled by Eclipse

Final plans for the Lunar Prospector spacecraft may run into a little snag. NASA was planning on smashing the probe into the moon in search of ice; however, there’s a possibility the upcoming eclipse may damage the spacecraft. It will spend 3 days flying into and out of the Earth’s shadow, and this may damage sensitive electronics on the probe – which is already near the end of its life.

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Fuel Leak Endangered Shuttle Launch

Although it successfully made it into orbit, the Space Shuttle Columbia developed a fuel leak shortly after launch. A previously unreleased video shows a streak of ignited fuel developing from one of the shuttle’s main engines. If the leak had progressed any further, it could have cause an emergency landing of the shuttle.

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Latest Launch Helps Globalstar Become Operational

The latest Globalstar launch on a Delta 2 put another 4 telecommunications satellites into orbit, and bringing the total number to 32. This is an important milestone for the company as it’s the minimum number of satellites needed for the system to offer global telephone service to its customers. Globalstar still plans to launch another 16 “birds” by the end of the year.

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Deep Space 1 Prepares for Asteroid Pass

Launched nine months ago, Deep Space 1 is being prepared for a flyby of Asteroid 1999 KD – renamed to Asteroid Braille. The spacecraft will fly within 9 miles of the asteroid, taking images, and sending them back to Earth.

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Space News for July 26, 1999

Chandra Successfully Deployed from Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia has completed its primary mission – to deploy and launch the Chandra X-Ray observatory. Once it was separated from the shuttle, Chandra fired its upper stage booster to carry it to a higher 25-hour orbit. Chandra will be 10-100 times more powerful than any other X-Ray telescope.

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Mir and Columbia Crews Communicate in Space

Although they were 7,700 miles apart, Columbia astronauts and Mir cosmonauts spent a few minutes today catching up on old times. The chat was between two Frenchmen: Michel Tognini on Columbia and Jean-Pierre Haignere on Mir, but shuttle commander Eileen Collins broke in to speak a few words to the Mir commander.

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Mir Spacewalkers Search for Leak Unsuccessful

Russian cosmonauts spent six fruitless hours in space attempting to find the source of a mysterious air leak on board Mir. Deputy flight director Viktor Blagov has informed reporters that the leak is above the allowable limit, and that the process is not developing for the better. If the leak isn’t found and fixed, the station will be uninhabitable within 3 months.

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Nearby Asteroid Considered a Stepping Stone to Space Colonization

When it passed within 500,000 miles of the Earth last year, astronomers had the opportunity to study asteroid 1998 KY26. They found it spins rapidly, but more importantly, the asteroid is loaded with ice – probably a million gallons worth. This makes the asteroid a nearby “oasis” for space colonization.

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Space News for July 23, 1999

Columbia Launches Successfully After the Third Attempt

After delays from bad weather, and a falsely detected hydrogen leak, the Space Shuttle Columbia finally launched early Friday morning from Cape Canaveral. If the shuttle hadn’t been able to launch on this attempt, it would have been grounded for at least an additional month. This shuttle mission will last 5 days.

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New Asteroid Danger Rating Developed

New research indicates that asteroids pass very close to the Earth on a regular basis. To help provide a common measurement for assessing the risk of impact, Richard Binzel from MIT has developed the Torino Impact Hazard Scale. A zero on the scale indicates no risk of impact, while a 10 forecasts global devastation.

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Moon Crash May Find Concrete, Not Water

As NASA prepares for the Lunar Prospector’s final mission – to slam into the moon in the hopes that its crash will dig up hidden ice – two researchers at Stanford University, Von R. Eshleman and George A. Parks believe that it may just crash into a concrete-like material. We’ll all find out in a week or so when Prospector crashes.

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Space News for July 22, 1999

Columbia Launch Aborted For the Second Time

Bad weather at Cape Canaveral scrubbed the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia for the second time. Thunderstorms surrounded the launch facility, and the director held the countdown at the five-minute mark throughout their entire window of opportunity, but eventually the launch was called off. They’ll try again on Friday.

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Hawking Working On a Theory for “Everything”

Physicist Stephen Hawking has been working for the last 20 years on the string theory as a unified explanation for all matter and energy for the universe. And he admits that the progress is going a little slower than he would have hoped at a recent conference in Germany.

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New NASA Mission will Capture the Solar Winds

Genesis is a new NASA Mission to recover particles of the solar wind. Expected to cost $216 million, the spacecraft will launch in January 2001, orbit the sun several times collecting solar particles, and finally return to Earth in 2003.

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New Photos of Mars Cause Controversy

New images of the Red Planet, taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, show an amazing diversity of features – including frost-covered sand dunes, water ice clouds and heavily eroded craters. Debates center around water: is it on the surface and how could it sustain life?

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