Launch activities in the United States in 2003 showed an increase from the relatively low level of the previous year. There were 26 NASA, DOD, and commercial launches, with one failure, Columbia (2002: 18 out of 18 attempts).
Space shuttle. Because of the loss of Orbiter Columbia on the first shuttle mission in 2003, operations with the reusable shuttle vehicles of the U.S. Space Transportation System (STS) came to a halt for the remainder of the year (and also for the following year 2004). Resupply and crew rotation flights to the ISS were taken over by Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles.
STS-107. Columbia, on its 28th flight, lifted off on January 16, 2003, on time at 10:39am EST on a research mission that gave more than 70 international scientists access to the microgravity environment in a sophisticated laboratory setting staffed by highly trained and motivated researchers working 32 payloads with 59 separate investigations. With its crew of seven, CDR Rick D. Husband, Pilot William C. McCool and Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan Ramon, Columbia circled Earth for nearly 16 days in an orbit of 173 miles (277 km) altitude. Both in the Shuttle middeck and in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) on its first flight in the cargo bay, the international crew, with the first Israeli astronaut (Ramon) and two women (Chawla, Clark), worked 24 hours a day in two alternating shifts on a mixed complement of competitively selected and commercially sponsored research in the space, life and physical sciences. Experiments were performed in the areas of astronaut health and safety, advanced technology development, and Earth and space science disciplines. Besides the RDM, payloads in the Shuttle cargo bay included the FREESTAR (Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research) with six payloads, the MSTRS (Miniature Satellite Threat Reporting System) and the STARNAV (Star Navigation). After completing a highly successful mission, Columbia returned to Earth on 2/1, but was lost with its crew during re-entry, 16 minutes before planned landing at KSC, when it violently disintegrated in the skies over Texas at 9 am EST. Debris from the Orbiter fell in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona and perhaps even California. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Admiral (ret.) Harold W. Gehman Jr., later concluded that unbeknownst to crew and ground one of the left wing's leading edge RCC (reinforced carbon carbon) elements had been punctured during ascent to orbit by a piece of debris, specifically a “suitcase-sized” chunk of foam insulation blown off the External Tank (ET) by the supersonic air stream, hitting the leading edge and rendering the wing unable to withstand reentry heating longer than about eight minutes after entry interface. Further shuttle operations were halted for the duration of the CAIB investigation and subsequent intensive Return To Flight (RTF) efforts by NASA and its contractors.
Advanced transportation systems activities. NASA's new five-year Space Launch Initiative (SLI) project, announced in 2001, continued in 2003, with 22 contracts awarded to industry in 2001 for developing the technologies that will be used to build an operational RLV before 2015 (these plans were later changed, when in 2004 President George W. Bush announced NASA’s new long-range vision for space exploration).
CHIPSat. CHIPSat (Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer) satellite is a University-Class Explorer (UNEX) mission funded by NASA, designed for all-sky spectroscopy of the diffuse background at wavelengths from 90 to 260 Å with a peak resolution of ?/150 (about 0.5 eV). CHIPSat was launched on January 12 on a Delta 2 rocket into a 94 degree inclination, 600 km circular orbit, along with the environmental satellite ICESat, and its observations are helping scientists determine the electron temperature, ionization conditions, and cooling mechanisms of the million-degree plasma believed to fill the local interstellar bubble.
SORCE. (Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment) is a NASA-sponsored satellite to provide state-of-the-art measurements of incoming x-ray, ultraviolet, visible, near infrared, and total solar radiation. The spacecraft was launched on January 25 on a Pegasus XL launch vehicle into a 645 km, 40-degree orbit of the Earth, carrying four instruments, including the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), Solar/Stellar Irradiance Comparison Experiment (SOLSTICE), Spectral Irradiance Monitor (SIM), and Extreme Ultraviolet Photometer System (XPD).
GALEX. GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) is an orbiting space telescope for observing tens of millions of star-forming galaxies in ultraviolet (UV) light across 10 billion years of cosmic history. Such observations tell scientists how galaxies, the basic structures of our Universe, evolve and change. Additionally, GALEX probes the causes of star formation during a period when most of the stars and elements we see today had their origins. GALEX was launched on April 28 by a Pegasus XL rocket into a nearly circular Earth orbit of 694 x 700 km altitude, inclined 28.99 degrees to the equator. Its telescope has a basic design similar to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), but while HST views the sky in exquisite detail in a narrow field of view - like a grain of sand held at arm's length - the GALEX telescope is tailored to view hundreds of galaxies in each observation. Thus, it requires a large field of view, rather than high resolution, in order to efficiently perform the mission 's surveys.
SIRTF. NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) in December (in honor of the late Dr. Lyman Spitzer Jr., one of the 20th century's most distinguished scientists), was launched on August 24 aboard a Delta 2 launch vehicle into an Earth-trailing orbit -- the first of its kind - around the Sun. The SST is the fourth and final element in NASA's family of Great Observatories and represents an important scientific and technical bridge to NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins program. The Observatory carries an 85-cm cryogenic telescope and three cryogenically cooled science instruments capable of performing imaging and spectroscopy in the 3.6 to 160 micron range. Its supply of liquid helium for radiative-cryogenic cooling was estimated post-launch to last for about 5.8 years, assuming optimized operation.
RHESSI. RHESSI (Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, in honor of the late NASA scientist who pioneered the fields of solar-flare physics, gamma-ray astronomy and cosmic ray research), launched on February 5, 2002, in 2003 continued its operation in Earth orbit, providing advanced images and spectra to explore the basic physics of particle acceleration and explosive energy release in solar flares.
Hubble Space Telescope. Thirteen years after it was placed in orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) continued to probe far beyond the Solar System, producing imagery and data useful across a range of astronomical disciplines to expand our knowledge of the universe. Hubble was and is making discoveries at a rate that is unprecedented for a single observatory, and its contributions to astronomy and cosmology are wide-ranging. In 2003, astronomers employed the HST’s new Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to obtain the clearest view yet of the dusk disk around a young, 5-million-year-old star, the birthplace of planets. The ACS used a distant galaxy cluster called Abell 1689 as a giant “lens” to bend and magnify the light of galaxies located far behind it, thus extending the HST’s range deeper into the universe. Scientists found faint objects that may have started to shine at the end of the so-called “Dark Ages” of the Universe, about 13 billion years ago (based on the current estimate of 14 billion years for the age of the cosmos). Other momentous accomplishments of the HST in 2003 were the identification of the oldest known planet in our Milky Way galaxy (about 13 billion years old, i.e., more than twice the age of our Earth’s 4.5 billion years), targeting data for Europe’s ambitious 2004 Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko, the biggest, brightest and hottest megastar-birth ever seen, with a million blue-white newborn stars in the “Lynx arc”, and a firestorm of star birth in the colorful nebula NGC 604. In 2003, development started on the HST’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), by a contracting team headed by Northrop Grumman Space Technology, selected in 2002. Plans are to launch the giant new cosmic telescope (5,400 kg/11,880 lbs) in 2011 on a European Ariane 5 toward the second Lagrangian point (L2), 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) beyond Earth’s orbit on the Sun-Earth line, where effects of their light on its optics are minimized and gravitational pull is relatively well balanced.
Chandra Observatory. Launched on shuttle mission STS-93 on July 23, 1999, the massive (12,930 lbs/5,870 kg) Chandra X-ray Observatory uses a high-resolution camera, high-resolution mirrors and a charge-coupled detector (CCD) imaging spectrometer to observe X-rays of some of the most violent phenomena in the universe which cannot be seen by the Hubble's visual-range telescope. Throughout its fourth year of operation, Chandra continued to provide scientists with views of the high-energy universe never seen before which potentially revolutionize astronomical and cosmological concepts. After NASA had formally extended the operational mission of Chandra from five years to 10 years in September 2001 (including the science grants that fund astronomers to analyze their data and publish their results), in 2003 Chandra's most popular image was the venerable Crab Nebula with its amazing pulsar and dazzling tornado of high-energy particles and magnetic fields. Chandra discovered two supermassive black holes orbiting each other in the nucleus of the galaxy NGC 6240, the first definitive identification of a binary supermassive block hole system. Seven mysterious sources of X-rays discovered at the high-energy "core" of the early universe are candidates for the most distant supermassive black holes ever observed. Chandra provided the best image yet of X-rays produced by fluorescent radiation from oxygen atoms in the sparse upper atmosphere of Mars; it also stunned observers with images of the spiral nebula M83 with its ethereal beauty of neutron stars and black holes around a blazing, starburst heart of multimillion degree gas, the remnant of the Tycho supernova, observed first by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572.
Galileo. In 2003, Galileo continued to return unprecedented data on Jupiter and its satellites before ending its 14-year mission on September 21, when the spacecraft passed into Jupiter's shadow, then disintegrated in the planet's dense atmosphere at 2:57pm EDT (to ensure that there is no chance the long-lived spacecraft could hit and possibly contaminate the moon Europa). NASA's Deep Space Network tracking station in Goldstone, CA, received the last signal at 3:43pm, delayed due to the signal's travel time to Earth. Galileo's prime mission ended seven years ago, after two years of orbiting Jupiter, and NASA extended the mission three times to continue taking advantage of the probe's unique capabilities. After a development time of 12 years and an interplanetary cruise duration of 6 years, the spacecraft orbited Jupiter for almost 8 years, circling it 35 times. Launched on October 18, 1989 onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Galileo's voyage was highlighted by "sling-shot" flybys (to pick up energy) of Venus (February 10, 1990), Earth (December 8, 1990 & December 8, 1992), Asteroid Gaspra (October 29, 1991), and Asteroid Ida (August 28, 1993). It witnessed the crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy into Jupiter (July 1994) and arrived at Jupiter on December 7, 1995. During its mission, the spacecraft used 925 kg (246 gallons) of propellant, returned more than 30 gigabytes of data and transmitted about 14,000 pictures. All in all, it covered a travel distance of 4,631,778,000 km (about 2.9 billion miles) from launch to impact.
Cassini. NASA's six-ton (5.4-metric-ton) spacecraft Cassini continued its epic 6.7-year, 3.2-billion-km journey to the planet Saturn. During 2003, the spacecraft remained in excellent health, with one year to go before becoming the first Earth envoy to enter orbit around the ringed planet Saturn, on June 30, 2004. After a close flyby (2,000 km/1,243 miles) of the furthest of Saturn's moons, Phoebe, and orbit insertion, Cassini will begin a four-year tour of the ringed planet, its mysterious moons, the stunning rings, and its complex magnetic environment, during which the spacecraft will complete 74 orbits of the ringed planet, 44 close flybys of the mysterious moon Titan, and numerous flybys of Saturn's other icy moons. About six months after orbit insertion on December 25, it will release its piggybacked European-built Huygens probe for descent through the thick atmosphere of the moon Titan on January 14, 2005. In 2003, using a sensitive new imaging instrument on the spacecraft, the probe discovered a large and surprisingly dense gas cloud at Jupiter, sharing an orbit with the planet's icy moon Europa. The tool, the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument, is one of 12 science instruments on the main spacecraft and one of six designed to investigate the environments around Saturn and its moons. Other highlights of Cassini's voyage in 2003 was the discovery of a dark cloud swirling around Jupiter's north pole which rivals the Great Dark Spot in size, and the first glimpse of the ringed planet Saturn, growing more detailed with time. Images taken from a distance of 111 million kilometers (69 million miles), or from about three-fourths of the distance between Earth and the Sun, showed details in the rings and atmosphere not seen a year ago, as well as five of Saturn's icy moons.
WMAP. NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (formerly called the Microwave Anisotropy Mission, MAP) was launched on June 30, 2001, on a Delta-2. Now located in an orbit around the second Lagrange libration point L2, its differential radiometers measure the temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) with unprecedented accuracy. The CMBR is the light left over from the Big Bang, bathing the whole Universe in this afterglow light. It is the oldest light in the Universe, having traveled across the cosmos for 14 billion years, and the patterns in this light across the sky encode a wealth of details about the history, shape, content, and ultimate fate of the Universe. Since start of WMAP operations, scientists produced the first version of a full sky map of the faint anisotropy or variations in the CMBR's temperature (now averaging at a frigid 2.73 degrees above absolute zero). One of the biggest surprises revealed in the data is that the first generation of stars to shine in the Universe ignited only 379,000 years after the Big Bang, over 13 billion years ago, much earlier than scientists had expected, the equivalent of taking a picture of an 80-year-old person on the day of birth. Much more detail has since been added to that "baby picture" of the Universe, which support and strengthen the Big Bang and Inflation Theories.
Genesis. The solar probe Genesis was launched on August 8, 2001, on a Delta 2 rocket into a perfect orbit about the first Earth-Sun Lagrangian libration point L1 about 1.5 million km from Earth and 148.5 million km from the Sun on November 16, 2001. After the unconventional "Lissajous Orbit Insertion" (LOI), Genesis began the first of five "halo" loops around L1, lasting about 30 months. Collection of samples of solar wind material expelled from the Sun started on October 21, 2001. One year later, on December 10, 2002, with the spacecraft in overall good health and spinning at 1.6 rotations per minute, its orbit around L1 was fine-tuned with the seventh of 15 planned station-keeping maneuvers during the lifetime of the mission. Throughout 2003, Genesis continued its mission of collecting solar wind material, with all spacecraft subsystems still reported in excellent health. In April 2004, the sample collectors will be deactivated and stowed, and the spacecraft will return to Earth, where the sample return capsule will be recovered in mid-air by helicopter over the Utah Test and Training Range on September 8, 2004.
ACE & Wind. The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched on August 25, 1997, is positioned in a halo orbit around L1, where gravitational forces are in equilibrium. ACE in 2003 continued to observe, determine and compare the isotopic and elemental composition of several distinct samples of matter, including the solar corona, the interplanetary medium, the local interstellar medium and galactic matter. With a semi-major axis of approximately 200,000 km, its elliptical orbit affords ACE a prime view of the Sun and the galactic regions beyond, from a vantage point approximately 1/100th of the distance from the Earth to the Sun. The spacecraft has enough propellant on board to maintain an orbit at L1 until ~2019. Wind, launched on November 1, 1994, as part of the International Solar-Terrestrial Project (ISTP), was first placed in a sunward, multiple double-lunar swingby orbit with a maximum apogee of 350 Earth radii, followed by a halo orbit at the L1 point. The spacecraft carries an array of scientific instruments for measuring the charged particles and electric and magnetic fields that characterize the interplanetary medium (or solar wind) - a plasma environment. Nearly continuous plasma measurements made by Wind near Earth are being used to investigate the disturbances and changes in the solar wind that drive important geomagnetic phenomena in the near-Earth geospace (such as aurorae and magnetic storms), as detected by other satellites and ground-based instruments.
Stardust. NASA's comet probe Stardust was launched on February 3, 1999 on a Delta 2 to begin its mission to intercept a comet and return close-up imagery to Earth. Also, for the first time ever, comet dust and interstellar dust particles will be collected during a close encounter with Comet P/Wild-2 in 2004 and returned to Earth for analysis. Stardust's trajectory is making three loops around the Sun before closest approach to the comet in January 2004. After one solar orbit, an Earth flyby was used to boost the spacecraft orbit on January 15, 2001 and a second period of interstellar dust collection was opened July to December 2002. On November 2, 2002 Stardust passed within 3000 km of asteroid 5535 Anne Frank, at 7 km/sec relative velocity. A second orbit of the sun was completed in mid-2003 and the comet P/Wild 2 encounter was to take place on January 2, 2004, with a closest approach of about 150 km at a relative velocity of about 6.1 km/sec, at 1.85 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun and 2.6 AU from Earth. The sample collector was deployed in late December 2003 and will be retracted, stowed, and sealed in the vault of the sample reentry capsule after the Wild fly-by. Images of the comet nucleus will also be obtained, with predicted coverage of the entire sunlit side at a resolution of 30 m or better. On January 15, 2006 the capsule will separate from the main craft (with a stabilizing spin of 1.5 rpm) and return to Earth. A parachute will be deployed, and a chase aircraft will "snatch" and recover the descending capsule over the U.S. Air Force Test and Training Range in the Utah desert.
Ulysses. In 2002, the joint European/NASA solar polar mission Ulysses continued. Launched in 1990 on shuttle mission STS-41 to study the Sun's polar regions, the mission in 2002 was in its 13th year, and all spacecraft systems and the nine sets of scientific instruments remain in excellent health. Ulysses arrived over the sun's south polar regions for the second time in November 2000, followed by the rapid transit from maximum southern to maximum northern helio-latitudes that was completed in October 2001. Solar activity reached its maximum in 2000, so that Ulysses experienced a very different high-latitude environment from the one it encountered during the first high-latitude passes. The spacecraft then headed away from the sun towards aphelion at the end of June 2004, after passing through its critical eighth conjunction on August 30, 2003 (where Earth, Sun and spacecraft are aligned with the Sun in the middle). Ulysses' signals are transmitted to its operations center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Pioneer 10. Launched from Cape Kennedy in 1972 aboard an Atlas/Centaur on a mission to Jupiter planned for only two years, the 570-lbs. (258-kg) Pioneer 10 has become the Earth's longest-lived interplanetary explorer, as it continues on its epic voyage to the stars as contact with it was still maintained by NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN). By end-2002 at a distance of 12.1 billion kilometers (7.52 billion miles) from Earth and 81.86 AU from the Sun, Pioneer 10 was passing through the transitional region between the farthest traces of the Sun's atmosphere, the heliosphere, still noticeable at that distance, and free intergalactic space. Signals transmitted by the little spacecraft needed 11 hours 12 minutes to reach Earth. Its course is pointed in the direction of the star Aldebaran, the "eye" of the constellation Taurus at a distance of 68 light-years (LY), which it will reach in two million years. But before that, at its current speed of 45,000 km/h (28,000 mph) the spacecraft will pass the red dwarf Proxima Centauri in 26,118 years, come within 3.2 LY of the red dwarf star Ross?248 in the Andromeda Nebula in 32,605 years, and fly by the white giant star Altair in 227,068 years. There was one more Pioneer 10 contact on December 5, 2002. The DSN station near Madrid found the weak signal but could not lock onto the receiver, and so no telemetry was received (the signal level was just under the threshold value). The uplink from Goldstone, California, sent December 4, 2002, at a power level of 325 kW, confirmed that the spacecraft signal is still there. The SETI Project Phoenix also picked up the signal from Pioneer 10 at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. What now appears to have been the venerable space probe's last signal was received by the DSN on January 23, 2003, a very weak signal without telemetry, indicating that Pioneer 10's radioisotope power source has decayed. The probe will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space into the interstellar void, toward Aldebaran.
Voyager. The Voyager mission, now in its 27th year, continues its quest to push the bounds of space exploration. The twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft opened new vistas in space by greatly expanding our knowledge of Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 then extended the planetary adventure when it flew by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the only spacecraft ever to visit these worlds. In 2003, Voyager 1 set a new milestone, when on November 5 the spacecraft reached 90 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun (i.e., about 8.4 billion miles or 13.5 billion kilometers). Now the most distant human-made object in the universe, Voyager 1 is the only spacecraft to have made measurements in the solar wind from such a great distance from the source of the dynamic solar environment. In July 2003, Voyager 2 had reached a distance from the Sun of 10.6 billion km (70 AU). Close on the heels of its twin ship, Voyager 2 also continues the groundbreaking journey with the current mission to study the region in space where the Sun's influence ends and the dark recesses of interstellar space begin.
Mars exploration. After the stunning failures of two Mars probes in 1999, NASA's Mars exploration program rebounded in the last three years. The Red Planet moved back into the focus of scientific inquiry and public attention, with new discoveries on the turbulent past of the planet's surface and atmosphere. In its newly developed plan, the NASA Exploration Team (NEXT) looked at buying exploration "by the yard", starting at the libration point between Earth and Moon and gradually moving outward. Such planning is supported by NASA's new space nuclear power initiative, called "Prometheus". After NASA in 2002 had narrowed the list of possible landing sites for the next two Mars Exploration Rover (MER) missions, their successful launches made headlines in 2003.
MER-A. The first Mars exploration rover was launched on June 10 on a Delta 2 Heavy rocket, weighing nearly 180 kg (about 400 lbs) and carrying a six-wheeled rover vehicle, which was named Spirit by the winner in a schoolchildren's competition. The explorer landed on Mars on January 3, 2004 (Eastern time), touching down almost exactly at its intended landing site in Gusev Crater in excellent condition.
MER-B. NASA's second Mars explorer, twin to MER-A, followed on July 7 (Eastern), also on a Delta 2 Heavy, after a "cliffhanger" countdown. Named Opportunity, the lander touched down on January 25, 2004, right on target on Meridiani Planum, halfway around the planet from the Gusev Crater site of its twin, also in excellent condition.
Mars Odyssey. The Mars Odyssey probe, launched April 7, 2001, successfully reached Mars on October 24, 2001, after a six-month and 286-million mile journey. Entering a highly elliptical orbit around the poles of the Red Planet, it began to change orbit parameters by aerobraking, reduce its ellipticity to a circular orbit at 400 km by end of January 2002. The orbiter is circling Mars for at least three years, with the objective of conducting a detailed mineralogical analysis of the planet's surface from space and measuring the radiation environment. During 2003, the mission proceeded exceptionally well, with its instruments collecting a huge volume of data and transmitting detailed observations to Earth highlighting water ice distribution and infrared images of the Red Planet's surface. Its instruments are giving scientists an unprecedented look at the ongoing processes that continue to change the red planet's surface, once thought to be a dead dust bowl. The mission has as its primary science goals to gather data to help determine whether the environment of Mars was ever conducive to life, to characterize the climate and geology of the planet, and to study potential radiation hazards to possible future astronaut missions. The orbiter also acts as a communications relay for other missions at Mars over a period of five years.
Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). MGS completed its primary mission at the end of January 2001 and entered an extended mission. The spacecraft has returned more data about the Red Planet than all other missions combined. After its arrival at Mars on September 11, 1997, MGS started a long series of aerobrake passes around the planet and, after reaching its operational orbit early in 1999, began its mapping mission on March 9. For the first three weeks, the mission proceeded with the spacecraft's 1.5-m (5 ft) high-gain antenna stowed due to concerns about the proper operation of its deployment mechanism. On March 28, 1999, the antenna was successfully deployed. Since then, MGS has been transmitting a steady stream of high-resolution images of Mars, which showed that the Red Planet is a world constantly being reshaped by forces of nature including shifting sand dunes, monster dust devils, wind storms, frosts and polar ice caps that grow and retreat with the seasons. In 2001, it sent back its 100,000th image of the Martian surface and, in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope, had a ringside seat to the largest global dust storm on the Martian surface seen in decades. Through 2003, imagery and transmissions continued. On May 8, it succeeded in capturing six other celestial bodies in a single photographic frame: taking advantage of an alignment in the orbits of Earth and Jupiter, MGS delivered a sensational picture that included the two planets, plus our Moon and three of Jupiter's four Galilean satellites - Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.
Earth Science. In 2003, NASA launched the ICESat satellite.
ICESat. ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) is the latest Earth Observing System (EOS) spacecraft and the benchmark mission for measuring ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics. Launched on January 12 on a Delta 2 Expendable Launch Vehicle (ELV) into a near polar orbit at an altitude of 600 km with an inclination of 94 degrees, the spacecraft carries only one instrument,- the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS)
Aqua. Aqua was launched by NASA in 2002. Formerly named EOS PM (signifying its afternoon equatorial crossing time), Aqua is part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS). Since May 2002, the 1750 kg (3858 lb) satellite, carrying six instruments weighing 1082 kg (2385 lb) designed to collect information on water-related activities worldwide, has been circling Earth in a polar, sun-synchronous orbit of 438 miles (705 km) altitude. During its six-year mission, Aqua is observing changes in ocean circulation and studies how clouds and surface water processes affect our climate. Aqua joined Terra, launched in 1999, and will be followed by Aura in 2004.
POES-M (NOAA-M). The operational weather satellite POES-M (Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites-M) was launched from VAFB on a commercial Titan 2 rocket on June 24, 2002. The satellite, later renamed NOAA-M, is part of the POES program, a cooperative effort between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United Kingdom (UK), and France. It joined the GOES-M launched in July 2001. Both satellites, operated by NOAA, provide global coverage of numerous atmospheric and surface parameters for weather forecasting and meteorological research.
GRACE. Launched on March 17, 2002, on a Russian Rockot carrier, the twin satellites GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), named "Tom" and "Jerry", are mapping the Earth's gravity fields by taking accurate measurements of the distance between the two satellites, using GPS and a microwave ranging system. This allows making detailed measurements of Earth's gravity field, which will lead to discoveries about gravity and Earth's natural systems with possibly far-reaching benefits to society and the world's population. GRACE provides scientists from all over the world with an efficient and cost-effective way to map the Earth's gravity fields with unprecedented accuracy, yielding crucial information about the distribution and flow of mass within the Earth and its surroundings. The project is a joint partnership between NASA and the German DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt).
Department of Defense space activities. United States military space organizations continued their efforts to make space a routine part of military operations across all service lines. One focus concerns plans for shifting the advanced technology base toward space in order to continue building a new foundation for more integrated air and space operations in the 21st century as space is becoming increasingly dominant in military reconnaissance, communications, warning, navigation, missile defense and weather-related areas. The use of space systems within military operations reached a new and distinct mark in 2002 for the war on terrorism and operations in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq in 2003. The increased use of satellites for communications, observations, and - through the Global Positioning System (GPS) - navigation and high-precision weapons targeting was of decisive importance for the military command structure. Orbiting assets ably demonstrated during the Iraq war that space-based intelligence, surveillance, communications, weather, missile warning and navigation tools give commanders great advantages and leverage for each of the military services.
In 2003, there were 11 military space launches: two Titan 4/Centaur vehicles from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the sixth Milstar FLT satellite, to complete the ring of communications satellites around the Earth and provide ultrasecure, jam-resistant transmission for troops and government leaders virtually anywhere on the planet, and an NRO signal intelligence (sigint) satellite. Eleven other satellites, for communications, navigation, sigint, weather/environment and technology development, were lifted into Earth orbit by three Delta 2s, the second and third new heavy lifter Delta 4, one Atlas 2 AS, one Russian-powered Atlas 3B, and the last two Titan 2G SLV converted ICBMs.
Commercial space activities. In 2003, commercial space activities in the United States exhibited a sluggish increase over prior years, after the 2001/2002 slump in the communications space market caused by failures of satellite constellations for mobile telephony.
In addition to the financial crisis, some difficulties remained due to the export restrictions imposed to the US industry on sensitive technologies. In general, commercial ventures continue to play a relatively minor role in US space activities, even less than in 2001 (50%), but more than the 26% in 2002, of commercial satellites and associated launch services worldwide.
Of the 26 total launch attempts by the United States in 2003 (vs. 18 in 2002), eight were commercial missions (NASA: 7; military: 11). In the launch services area, Boeing sold seven Delta-2 vehicles, while competitor ILS/Lockheed Martin flew one Atlas 2AS and two Atlas 3B (with Russian engines). Both companies also had successful launches of their next-generation EELV (evolved expendable launch vehicle) rockets, viz., Lockheed Martin with the second and third Atlas 5 (comsats Hellas Sat 2 & Rainbow 1), and Boeing with the third and fourth Delta 4 heavy launcher (comsats Eutelsat W5 & DSCS III B-6). Orbital Science Corp. had four successful flights of the Pegasus XL airplane-launched rocket, carrying NASA's SORCE, ICESat and GALEX, Canada's Scisat-1 aeronomy satellite, and the commercial Orbview-3 for imaging, while the partnership of Boeing, RSC-Energia (Russia, 25% share), NPO Yushnoye (Ukraine) and Kvaerner Group (Norway) successfully launched three Russian Zenit 3SL rockets, carrying United Arab Emirates (UAE)'s Thuraya-2, the Echostar 9/Telstar13 and the Galaxy 13/Horizons-1 comsats, from the Odyssey sea launch platform floating at the Equator (first launch 1999).
On May 20, the Scaled Composites company, currently the only commercial enterprise independently engaged in advanced development of human space flight capability, made the first flight of its spaceship, the piloted mother ship/airplane White Knight carrying the SpaceShipOne rocket-powered glider to nearly 50,000 ft, both remaining joined. The first gliding flight of the latter followed on August 7, after separation from the carrier aircraft at 47,000 ft. Both White Knight and SpaceShipOne landed smoothly under test pilot control at the Mojave, CA, test range.