On July 23, 1971, Landsat 1 (originally named the Earth Resources Technology Satellite) was launched into space. The goal of the Landsat program was to obtain extensive satellite imagery of Earth's terrain. Today, both Landsat 7, which was launched in 1999, and Landsat 8, which began operating in 2013, are active and functional. The program was heavily opposed at the start, for budget restrictions and the U.S. Defense Department's fear that such photography would negatively affect the confidentiality of the missions. But it ultimately was funded and became a successful and valuable new program.
Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope is named for Edwin Powell Hubble, a hugely important 20th century American astronomer who discovered and proved the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way. The telescope was launched into orbit in 1990, and since then has broken barriers through its unique ability to capture and transmit images of space. The telescope is used for extensive scientific research projects, such as the Frontier Field program, but members of the public can also apply for observation time.
Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched by NASA in 1999, is a telescope designed for detecting X-ray emissions in space. These emissions occur in the universe's hottest regions, such as where stars explode, and Chandra has been groundbreaking in its ability to capture images of such phenomena. As of March 14, 2019, Chandra was capturing images of a galactic storm in a distant galaxy in a cosmic structure known as the “Teacup.” It is located over 1 billion light years from Earth.
Spitzer Space Telescope
The Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in August 2003 and still functions in 2019, is an infrared telescope that has allowed scientists visual access to previously unseen regions of the universe. The telescope is made up of two main components: the spacecraft itself and the cryogenic telescope assembly. It has produced striking images of brown dwarfs, molecular clouds, and more. Spitzer is notable for its role in scientists' ability to identify exoplanets and has given insight into galaxies over 13 billion light years from Earth.
International Space Station
If you don't enjoy spending extended periods of time with your coworkers, then a job on the International Space Station may not be for you. The Space Station, which launched into orbit in 1998, has now been continuously inhabited for close to 20 years, with crews generally staying on board for six months at a time. Many nations contribute crew members and scientific knowledge to the project, and the three members of the current Expedition 58 (Oleg Kononenko, Anne McClain, and David Saint-Jacques) have been aboard since December 2018. This consistent presence of humans in space is groundbreaking in its own right, and has allowed the scientific community to perform extensive experiments and gain knowledge about how humans can live in space.
Mars Science Laboratory
Since 2012, the Curiosity rover for the Mars Science Laboratory has been stationed on the red planet, trying to provide an answer to one specific question: was Mars ever able to support life, specifically microscopic organisms known as microbes? Mars Science Laboratory's mission is a subset of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, designed to study the habitability of Mars and determine whether the planet could one day be a home for humans. Through its success in shedding light on Mars, Curiosity is living up to its name, which was bestowed by 12-year-old Clara Ma, winner of the Mars Science Laboratory essay contest.
Parker Solo Probe
Many spacecrafts and brave astronauts have traveled the galaxy, but the Parker Solo Probe has embarked on a mission unlike anything that has come before. Launched in 2018, this spacecraft is en route to enter territory four million miles from the Sun. Though that may sound like a huge distance, this probe will encounter unimaginably intense heat and radiation, and is doing so to learn more about the sun's outer corona (the aura of plasma surrounding the sun). Another detail that sets the Parker Solo Probe apart from all other NASA missions is that it's the first to be named for a living individual: Eugene Parker, a professor at the University of Chicago who theorized revolutionary concepts about how the sun emits energy.
Because of the dense layer of clouds that surrounds it, Jupiter maintains an environment that could shed light on the conditions in play when the solar system was first formed. This is the primary reason Juno is so important: launched in 2011, it is the first probe to map Jupiter's structure so far below the clouds. It can sample the charged particles on the planet's poles, which have never been analyzed in such a way. Juno is the name of the Roman goddess who was able to see through clouds to check on her husband, Jupiter, which is perfectly fitting.
OSIRIS-REx's mission is no small undertaking: This spacecraft, and those behind it at NASA, are seeking answers to such questions as where humans come from and why the universe exists as it does. OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016 and is currently mapping the asteroid Bennu, which was chosen for this mission because of its size, composition, and proximity. (It's so close that it might hit Earth in the 22nd century.) The great feat of OSIRIS-REx is that it's on track to be the first mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth, theoretically in 2023.
Besides the great discoveries it provided, Cassini also marked an act of unity in the name of science. This spacecraft, which traveled to Saturn carrying a probe known as Huygens, was a joint effort among NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. Cassini's mission lasted 20 years, and in that time it made many critical discoveries, including revelations about the gravitational pull of Saturn's rings. Huygens also made the first landing on Titan, Saturn's moon. Perhaps most impressively, the Cassini mission ended with a grand finale: In its last months, Cassini dove through the gap between Saturn and its rings 22 times, creating a well of data about this previously unexplored region.
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