ASPERA3 Mission
Stardust Mission
Kepler Mission




Discovery's first mission, Mars Pathfinder, successfully demonstrated the use of deployable airbags to safely land a robotic rover on another planet.  Read about testing the airbags.

Engineers test huge air bags

Engineers test huge air bags designed to protect the spacecraft upon impact on the surface of Mars.  The air bags, which measure 17 ft tall and 17 ft in diameter, are composed of four large bags with six smaller, interconnected spheres within each bag. They inflated at about 330 feet above the surface.

Deflated balloons

Deflated airbags are visible in this view after landing on Mars.


Robotic sample return missions are a priority to scientists, and Stardust and Genesis have led the way. Aerogel, developed in the 1930's and used previously in space as a thermal insulator, was employed by Stardust to capture particles of comet and interstellar dust in its collector grid. Aerogel is a silicon-based solid with a porous, sponge-like structure in which 99.8 percent of the volume is empty space. Genesis used a series of wafers made of sapphire, silicon, gold and diamond to collect raw solar wind particles in outer space. The two missions had to meet the challenges of designing sample handling and packaging systems along with safe, lightweight Earth entry vehicles.

A tile of aerogel

A tile of aerogel after it returned to Earth, containing bits of dust from comet Wild 2.

collector arrays

Genesis carried five collector arrays, each loaded with 55 hexagonal wafers made of 15 different high-purity materials chosen for their durability, purity, cleanliness, retentiveness and ease of analysis.

Deep Impact's great challenge was to target and successfully impact the 3.7 mile diameter comet Tempel 1 while traveling at a relative velocity of 6 miles per second. The two-part spacecraft used newly developed avionics elements and innovative software to accomplish its goals. After separation, the "smart" impactor guided itself into the path of the comet nucleus, with some path corrections made by the navigation team at JPL, while the flyby spacecraft slowed down to observe the impact and return images.
Deep Impact photo

The two-part spacecraft accomplished its extremely challenging goals with amazing precision. The bright light created by the impact reveals detailed topographic features captured by the flyby.




    <<< PREVIOUS    1    2   3      NEXT >>>