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Future Mars rover
NASA's next mobile rover that will be sent to the Red Planet is Mars Science Laboratory. Roughly the size of a Mini Cooper car and designed to operate on the Martian surface for two Earth years, this large rover is scheduled for launch in 2009. Project manager Richard Cook unveils a model of the rover and talks about the mission in this video clip.

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Mars rover anniversary
The remarkable rovers Spirit and Opportunity remain alive and well on the surface of the Red Planet, far outlasting their planned 90-day missions. On Jan. 24, the second anniversary of Opportunity's landing, project officials and scientists held this celebration event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Launch of New Horizons
The New Horizons spacecraft begins a voyage across the solar system to explore Pluto and beyond with its successful launch January 19 aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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Stardust comes home
NASA's Stardust spacecraft returns samples of cometary dust to Earth with its safe landing in Utah on January 15.

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NASA administrator
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and his deputy Shana Dale hold a news conference at Kennedy Space Center in the final hours of the countdown to the New Horizons launch. Questions from reporters ranged from the Pluto-bound mission, the agency's budget and the space shuttle program.

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STS-32: LDEF retrieval
Space shuttle Columbia's mission in January 1990 sought to retrieve the Long Duration Exposure Facility -- a bus-size platform loaded with 57 experiments -- that had been put into orbit six years earlier. LDEF was supposed to be picked up within a year of its launch. But plans changed and then the Challenger accident occurred. Columbia's STS-32 crew got into space, deployed a Navy communications satellite, then fulfilled their LDEF recovery mission, carried out a host of medical tests and returned to Earth with a nighttime touchdown in the California desert. The crew presents this post-flight film of mission highlights.

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NASA through the decades
This film looks at the highlights in NASA's history from its creation in the 1950s, through the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, birth of the space shuttle and the loss of Challenger, launch of Hubble and much more.

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Potential mission to Mars seeks underground water
Posted: January 29, 2006

A bold, new robotic mission to Mars proposes to make the first exploration of subsurface water ice in a potentially habitable zone.

THOR, a low-cost mission designed for NASA's Mars Scout program, aims to send a projectile at high speed into the martian surface while observing the impact and its aftermath. The mission is led by Arizona State University in Tempe, in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Planned for launch in 2011, THOR (Tracing Habitability, Organics, and Resources) will use a direct approach to excavating material from beneath the surface of Mars: blasting it out.

"The mission's goal is to expose snow and ice in a previously unexplored part of Mars -- the deep subsurface. We'll do this by blowing a crater at least 30 feet deep in the martian ground," says THOR's principal investigator Phil Christensen of Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility.

Besides finding underground water, he says, THOR will also look for organic compounds, including methane, which Earth-based telescopes and other Mars spacecraft have detected in the martian atmosphere.

The proposed THOR mission will use a two-part spacecraft consisting of an impactor probe and an observer craft. The impactor is a simple projectile made of pure Arizona copper. The observer spacecraft will carry it until shortly before reaching Mars. After being released from the observer, the impactor will streak through the martian atmosphere to an impact site lying between 30 degrees and 60 degrees latitude, in either the northern or southern hemisphere.

"In many areas of Mars' middle latitudes, we see tantalizing evidence of dust-covered layers of snow or ice," says Christensen. "THOR will aim for this material." The suspected ice-rich layers were deposited during the past 50,000 to 1 million years, as the martian climate changed due to orbital variations.

According to the mission plan, when the impactor slams into the ground, it will dig a crater more than 30 feet (10 meters) deep. The observer spacecraft will study the debris plume jetting from the impact site.

The observer's instruments will include a visible-light camera and an infrared spectrometer. In addition to studying the plume, the spectrometer's role is to search the martian atmosphere for organic materials and gases such as methane.

In the past, Christensen notes, Mars has been studied using flyby and orbiter spacecraft, and with landers. While highly valuable, such missions have only scratched the surface, he says. "The time has come to take martian studies a step further -- and deeper."

Christensen adds, "This unexplored region of Mars may provide chemical and mineral clues to tell us about habitable areas on the planet."

"The THOR mission plans to use a straightforward, low-risk approach to reach the martian subsurface," says JPL's David Spencer, study lead engineer for THOR. Spencer is the former mission manager for Deep Impact, the comet mission that pioneered the impact technique. Comparing the two missions, Spencer says, "With such a large target region on Mars, delivering THOR's impactor will be less challenging than the Deep Impact comet encounter."

Christensen sees THOR's scientific value continuing far beyond the impact. "THOR's crater will remain a test-site for all current Mars spacecraft and those in years to come," he says. Moreover, he points out, "the crater might also be visited on the ground by a future Mars rover, sometime in the next decade."

NASA's Mars Scouts are competitively proposed missions designed to advance the goals of NASA's Mars exploration program. The Mars Scout Program is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington.