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Friday, August 20, 2004


Future Mission Concepts May Become Reality
08.12.04 The murky, auburn tones of the Keyhole Nebula.
NASA is considering nine astrophysics experiments that could pave the way toward future space missions designed to reveal the nature of the universe and how life was formed. The candidates are mission hopefuls for becoming part of NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins Program. Operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the Origins Program seeks to answer the basic questions regarding our universe and the origin of life. Selected from a pool of 26 proposals, the concept finalists offer an array of experiments and methods for studying astronomical objects and their chemical composition. Researchers now have eight months to refine their projects to outline mission objectives and possible spacecraft design. Image to right: Scientists want to know more about the soupy mix of free-floating organic compounds that led to life in the universe. Credit: NASA Many of the projects plan to investigate the universe as it exists today, while others will use their technology to peer back in time to examine the cosmic past. One such instrument could be the Hubble Origins Probe. With its powerful sensors and camera, the Hubble Origins Probe concept proposes the construction of a highly-advanced space-based telescope. The Probe would use instruments originally designed for the Hubble Space Telescope to analyze the birth of individual stars, planets and black holes that formed millions of year ago. One a broader scale, the Baryonic Structure Probe intends to detect and map the flow of chemical matter into early galaxies. Understanding the path of these galactic chemical currents would give scientists tremendous insight into the twisting and churning mechanics of the universe. Many scientists believe the universe is expanding outward from a central point and occupying more and more space. The Cosmic Inflation Probe aims to measure the shape of the universe's expansion by locating galaxies that formed early in history. The immediate location of the galaxies would be compared with their beginning position and used to define the shape of their expansion.
The Hubble Space Telescope gliding above the Earth.

Image to left: Deep space research missions like the Hubble Space Telescope have shown us a universe we previously only dreamed existed. Future missions will extend our reach into the cosmos and allow us to discover the principles and mechanisms for the development of galaxies, planets and life. Credit: NASA Focusing on more than just the past, scientists are also devising ways to scan the present cosmos. The Origins Billion Star Survey mission intends to count all of the larger planets in the Milky Way, as well as the stars within 30,000 light years of the Sun. Looking to understand the building blocks of life, the Astrobiology Space InfraRed Explorer observatory will search for organic materials in space and attempt to identify how they enter a planet's environment. Time will tell which designs make it from the drawing board to the launch pad. Whatever the results, individually or collectively, any of one of these missions may show us the universe of yesterday, how it exists today, or where it might be tomorrow.

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center


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