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NASA Science -- It's Not Just About Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2012
Updated: 09-Aug-2012 09:16 PM

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has captivated our attention for the past several days, and undoubtedly for weeks, months and years to come.  But NASA's science program is more than "just" planetary exploration, as agency press releases have emphasized over the past couple of days.

NASA's Science Mission Directorate has four main divisions -- planetary science, earth science, heliophysics (also known as solar-terrestrial physics), and astrophysics.  In addition, there is a lot of science happening aboard the International Space Station, which is part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

To make sure Curiosity's breathtaking landing and mesmerizing images don't upstage all the other science that NASA does, here is a brief rundown of other recent NASA science news:

  • Earth Science.   Studying other bodies in the solar system is fascinating, but Earth is the Number One planet!  NASA has many satellites studying our home. Today NASA released an image from one of its Earth science satellites, Aqua, showing an unusual storm over the Arctic.  NASA said that in the past 34 years, in August, there have only been eight storms of similar strength. The conditions for such storms usually occur in the winter, not the summer.  That's Greenland in the lower left, with its white icesheet. 

Image credit:  NASA/Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team

  • Heliophysics.   NASA held a press conference today about the upcoming launch of its Radiation Belts Storm Probes (RBSP). The two probes will investigate how Earth's Van Allen radiation belts interact with events on the Sun in creating "space weather."  Space weather is caused by particles from the Sun released during solar flares interacting with the Earth's magnetosphere, with resulting satellite failures, electrical outages on Earth, and disruption to telecommunications signals, including those from television and GPS satellites.
  • Astrophysics.   NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is probably the most popular earth-orbiting satellite ever placed into space, but it is only one of four "great onservatories" launched by NASA.   Two of the others continue to function today, Chandra and Spitzer.  On August 17 NASA will have a news conference about a "record-breaking galaxy cluster" discovered by Chandra researchers.  Each of the great observatories was designed to study the universe in different wavelengths:  Hubble, visible;  Spitzer, infrared; Chandra. x-ray; and Compton (deorbited after its mission ended), gamma rays. 
  • International Space Station (ISS).   The ISS was created as a scientific laboratory in orbit where research could be conducted in a microgravity environment.  The six ISS crew members -- currently three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese -- conduct an array of scientific experiments.  Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft recently docked with the ISS, delivering some new, interesting experiments, including one to "examine the predatory behavior of jumping spiders."  Yes, there are spiders aboard the ISS.  The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on July 25 that discussed many other experiments with more direct relevance to humans, including research into vaccines for salmonella and MRSA.   A compendium of science experiments on ISS is available on NASA's website.

As for the solar system, Mars is hardly NASA's only interest.  NASA probes have visited all of the eight planets and one is currently enroute to Pluto, which used to be a planet.  These probes also have studied many of the moons of the outer planets and other spacecraft are investigating asteroids and comets.  Excluding the ISS research, NASA's budget for space and earth science is about $5 billion a year.


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