Major Space Events
Mars Exploration Rovers, 2004-Present
On January 3, 2004, the “Spirit” rover landed on Mars in Gusev crater, followed on January 25 by “Opportunity” reaching the Sinus Meridiani region, halfway around the planet from its twin. Since that time, both rovers have been operating on the Martian surface and returning stunning scientific findings that are restructuring our knowledge of the red planet. For one, we now know that Mars was once a watery world, and that water may yet be under its surface. This discovery has profound consequences for the possibilities of life having once been there. A mockup of the Mars Exploration Rover is on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s “Exploring the Planets” exhibition.
Building of International Space Station (ISS), 1998-2009
With the first elements launched and joined in orbit in 1998, the building of ISS has consumed most of the human space missions of both the United States and Russia for the last decade. Since the occupation of the Expedition One crew to ISS—William M. (Bill) Shepherd, Yuri Pavlovich Gidzenko, and Sergei K. Krikalev—in 2001 there has been a crew of between two and six aboard the station throughout the decade. The ISS is a major focus of the “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum.
International Space Station (ISS) in August of 2001. Photographed from the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery (STS-105) after separating from the ISS. (Image courtesy NASA/MSFC)
Discovery of Extrasolar Planets, 1995-present
The first planet discovered around another star was announced on October 6, 1995, and since that time 358 extrasolar planets have been discovered. Although no Earth-like planets have been discovered yet, the prospects seem good for discovery in the next few years. Imagine the excitement of such a discovery? Information about cosmology, astronomy, and astrophysics is available in the National Air and Space Museum’s “Explore the Universe” exhibition.
This artists concept of an extrasolar planet is used as the logo for the 2004 Exploring Space Lecture Series.
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker Mission, 1996-2001
NEAR Shoemaker was launched on February 17, 1996, journeyed to the Mathilde asteroid for a flyby, and then landed on the Asteroid 433 Eros on February 12, 2001, while transmitting 69 close-up images of the surface during its final descent. It was the first spacecraft mission specifically designed to study an asteroid. We would really like to collect NEAR Shoemaker for the National Air and Space Museum, but that will have to await a return to Asteroid 433 Eros with capability to return cargo. I probably won’t see this in my lifetime. There is more information on asteroids and their exploration in the National Air and Space Museum’s “Exploring the Planets” exhibition.
The last image of 433 Eros sent back from NEAR Shoemaker before it landed. The image was taken from an altitude of only 120 meters (390 feet). The boulder at the top is about 4 meters (12 feet) across