IIt’s not hard to keep track of NASA’s high profile objects – the highly visible spacecraft that generally carry equally high prices and make very big headlines. There’s the $150 billion International Space Station; the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope; the $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars Rover; and then, of course, the troubled $4.1 billion-per-flight Space Launch System moon rocket. That’s an impressive handful for any national space agency.
But NASA is more than its marquee missions. Much less is discussed by most people about the swarm of spacecraft that the space agency operates at any given time throughout the solar system. At last count, NASA was managing no fewer than 14 active extra-orbit missions — from the Parker Solar Probe, which is studying the Sun; to the Voyager 1 and 2 missions exploring the outer solar system; to the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter; to the fleet of ships on or around Mars; to the different spacecraft studying different asteroids – and more. Missions range from the relatively recent — Perseverance landed on Mars just over a year ago — to the very old: Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter was in the White House and was the first war of stars The film was the number one box office hit nationwide.
This week, NASA doubled down on no fewer than eight of its space probes, whose future was in doubt due to budget pressures, and extended their current missions by an average of three years. It was an easy call thanks to the quality science they keep giving back and the simple fact that their hardware continues to perform as intended even after years in space. The eight missions are the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance, and MAVEN orbiters, all orbiting the Red Planet; the InSight lander and the Curiosity rover, both located on the surface of Mars; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009; the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, which collected samples from asteroid Bennu and will return them to Earth sometime in 2029; and the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth four years later.
Missions are extended for various reasons depending on the spacecraft. In addition to the science they are already gathering, the Martian orbiters can also serve as data relay stations for future Martian landers – unmanned and one day manned. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can do the same for unmanned spacecraft landing on the moon. New Horizons goes in search of potential new Kuiper Belt objects for Barnstorm. OSIRIS-Rex takes a detour to orbit the near-Earth asteroid Apophis before finally making his way home and returning his prized parts from Bennu.
The announcement of contract extensions for the eight above-average ships didn’t make much headlines this week – but it should have. NASA’s budget is tiny – just 0.4% of total US federal spending – but it uses it to support no less than an interplanetary flight wing. The spaceships go about their work quietly but spectacularly. They’ve earned every extra year of life NASA’s engineers can give them.
This story is excerpted from TIME’s weekly space newsletter. Login here.
More must-read stories from TIME
https://time.com/6172315/nasa-extends-missions/ Extra years of life for NASA’s far-flung fleet