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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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Former astronaut to lead advanced rocket concept
Posted: January 27, 2006

NASA has signed an agreement with Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Co. that paves the way for commercialization of a promising advanced plasma rocket system that has evolved over the past 25 years.

Franklin Chang-Diaz flew on seven shuttle flights. Photo: NASA
The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is a type of propulsion system that produces a plasma exhaust at temperatures similar to those in the interior of the sun. The system may generate rocket thrust with performance hundreds of times higher than that of present chemical rockets. The increased performance could mean dramatic reductions in fuel requirements. While conventional rocket nozzles would melt under the extreme temperatures, VASIMR uses magnetic force fields to control and direct the plasma exhaust jet.

Potential commercial applications for the technology could include the re-boost of large orbiting platforms, satellite delivery and repositioning, as well as cargo delivery to the Moon. The technology also may provide a capability for high-power plasma propulsion for future interplanetary human and robotic missions.

"This is a propulsion system that is vastly different from the conventional chemical rockets of today, with the potential for vastly better results," said Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, a former astronaut who spearheaded the development of the technology while with NASA. "The promise this system holds could dramatically reduce the travel time for interplanetary missions, cutting trip times to Mars by one half or better."

The technology also may have applications on Earth in the microelectronics and environmental industries. High power plasma devices are being studied to process large amounts of radioactive nuclear waste and to destroy highly toxic chemical and biological waste. Development of superconducting magnets for VASIMR also could lead to applications in space radiation shielding, transportation, medicine and energy generation.

"The transfer of this innovative technology to the private sector will accelerate its development, benefiting everyone," said Helen Lane, JSC acting manager of technology transfer. "The future exploration of space depends on cooperative research between private industry and NASA to advance technology." NASA will collaborate with Ad Astra, continuing some funding of the project for the next two years, to ensure a smooth transition.

A NASA astronaut and scientist for 25 years and a veteran of a record seven Space Shuttle flights, Chang-Diaz retired from NASA in July 2005 to continue work with the development of the VASIMR engine with Ad Astra Rocket.

Chang-Diaz conceived VASIMR in 1979 while at The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.