Small NASA Missions: Finalists Selected for the Next One

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While Most of the Focus Stays on Artemis and other Large Scale Missions, There are Plenty of Others to Discuss. And Officials Have Selected Four Candidates for the Next Small NASA Missions.

Nearly everywhere you look around NASA these days, the message seems fairly monotonous: Moon (with Mars sprinkled in when the President’s looking). We’re going to the moon again by 2024. Hey did you know we’re going back to the moon? By the way, we’re going to the Moon so we can get to Mars. On the other hand. NASA is by no means a single-minded organization. In labs and facilities and universities all over the United States, engineers work tirelessly on small NASA missions. And those “small” missions often produce huge results!

NASA’s “Explorer” program has existed longer than most programs in the agency. In fact, Explorer 1 was our first successful attempt to launch a human-made satellite into orbit. These small NASA missions, two Small Explorer (SMEX) missions and two Missions of Opportunity, represent a part of that tradition. 

NASA announced four finalists for up to two potential missions on Monday, March 16th. NASA set the budget for the SMEX missions at $2 million for the full-scale project. The Missions of Opportunity will work with half a million dollars for their full-scale studies. 

According to Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, “Each of these missions would take the next steps in some of the hottest areas of astrophysics today.” He continued, referencing the program itself, “With the high science rewards for low dollar amounts, Explorers missions successfully fill the scientific gaps in our current fleet of space observatories.”

The Finalists

The two SMEX finalists include the Extreme-ultraviolet Stellar Characterization for Atmospheric Physics and Evolution (ESCAPE), and the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI). The former will study ultraviolet flares around nearby stars that might obliterate the atmospheres of orbiting planets. The latter is set to look at cosmic radiation in the form of gamma rays around the Milky Way. From there, these data help astronomers to better understand how stars die.

Finalists for the Missions of Opportunity could also provide big new data. They include the Gravitational-wave Ultraviolet Counterpart Imager Mission and the Large Area Burst Polarimeter (LEAP). The first would use two small satellites to observe two separate UV bands that could help identify neutron stars and black holes. The second would be mounted on the ISS. Its mission would also look at neutron stars and study the gamma-ray jets they produce. 

In each case, these missions would provide valuable data to the thousands of researchers worldwide who are working to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. While the big missions like Artemis and others are certainly sexier to think about, it’s more often the culmination of knowledge brought about by small NASA missions that provides leaps forward in our understanding. 

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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