NASA Reveals the Unknown in 2016

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2016 — (PRNewswire) —  In 2016, NASA drove advances in technology, science, aeronautics and space exploration that enhanced the world's knowledge, innovation, and stewardship of Earth.

"This past year marked record-breaking progress in our exploration objectives," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "We advanced the capabilities we'll need to travel farther into the solar system while increasing observations of our home and the universe, learning more about how to continuously live and work in space, and, of course, inspiring the next generation of leaders to take up our Journey to Mars and make their own discoveries."

Solar System and Beyond

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system's largest planet, NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter's orbit July 4. Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Returning data and images to Earth gathered by NASA's  Space Network will keep scientists busy for years to come.

The Sept. 8 launch of NASA's first asteroid sampling mission began a journey that could revolutionize our understanding of the early solar system. Called the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), the spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with and study the asteroid Bennu, and then return a sample of it to Earth in 2023.

NASA Administrator Bolden with agency scientists and engineers discussed the next steps for NASA's next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, while also providing a rare glimpse of the telescope's mirrors following completion of the final primary mirror segment in February. The biggest and most powerful space telescope ever designed now is being prepared for transport to NASA's Johnson Space Center in 2017 for testing prior to final assembly and launch in 2018.

After years of preparatory studies, NASA in 2016 formally started an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe. Called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), it will aid researchers in their efforts to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. It also will discover new worlds outside our solar system -- known as exoplanets -- and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life.

NASA's Kepler mission in May verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of exoplanets to date -- more than doubling the number of confirmed planets from Kepler. This gave scientists hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth. Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope's July planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets.

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth's oceans, and the moon is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system.

New research in May indicated solar explosions may have been the key to seeding life on Earth as we know it some 4 billion years ago.

Like sending sensors up into a hurricane, NASA announced in May it had successfully flown for the first time the four Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft through an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection. MMS now also holds the Guinness World Record for highest altitude fix of a GPS signal at 43,500 miles above the surface.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft now is entering the final year of its epic voyage. While this historic science odyssey will conclude in September 2017, the spacecraft will first complete a daring two-part endgame. On Nov. 30, Cassini began a series of 20 weekly F-ring orbits, just past the outer edge of the main rings. Cassini's final phase -- called the grand finale -- begins in April 2017.

NASA's New Horizons mission reached a major milestone in October when the last bits of science data from the Pluto flyby – stored on the spacecraft's digital recorders since July 2015 – arrived safely on Earth.

In June, the mission received the green light to fly onward to a 2019 rendezvous with an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69. In January, NASA announced it was formalizing its ongoing program for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) as the  Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). The office supervises all NASA-funded projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth's orbit. It also takes a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats. In October, a major milestone was reached with the number of discovered near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) crossing the 15,000 threshold, with an average of 30 new discoveries added each week.

International Space Station

NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth March 1 after an historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station. The unprecedented mission continues as scientists continue to assess and apply the data to advance NASA's understanding and preparations for long-duration human spaceflight on the Journey to Mars.

The International Space Station continues to be the world's premier orbiting laboratory, where humans have been continuously conducting critical research for more than 16 years to demonstrate new technologies and provide benefits to Earth. Most recently, astronaut Peggy Whitson joined the space station crew; in February she will become the first woman to command the orbiting outpost twice. By the conclusion of her mission she is set to become the U.S. astronaut with the most cumulative time in space, surpassing Jeff Williams' 2016 record of 534 days.

During four missions in 2016, NASA's commercial cargo partners Orbital ATK and SpaceX launched more than 24,000 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station, including crew supplies and equipment to support hundreds of crucial science experiments and technology demonstrations aboard the space station.

Experiments included Saffire-I and Saffire-II, which provided a new way to study fire on an uncrewed exploration craft, and research included the sequencing of more than one billion base pairs of DNA in space for the first time.

The agency's first test of an expandable module began with the delivery to the station of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in April and its full expansion in May. During the two-year test mission of BEAM to determine whether astronauts could use such structures for deep space missions, astronauts will enter the module for a few hours several times each year to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions.

Throughout 2016, hundreds of engineers and technicians with NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX worked to complete the final designs, manufacturing, and testing of commercial space transportation systems to return crewed spacecraft launches to American soil. While Commercial Crew Program development continues on Earth, important preparations are underway on the space station, including the delivery and installation of the first International Docking Adapter , which will enable future crews to arrive via Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.

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