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Targeting an Asteroid

NASA’s first planetary defense mission—the APL-led Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART)—launches in 2021. DART is the first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique, which involves striking an asteroid to shift its orbit and deflect it from Earth. The APL-built DART spacecraft will reach its target, the small moon of the binary asteroid Didymos, in 2022.

Destination: Europa

The search for life in the solar system beyond Earth gets a boost when NASA’s Europa Clipper mission launches in the mid-2020s to explore under the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. A partnership between APL and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Europa Clipper isn’t meant to find life itself—but it will help determine what ingredients for life are present on Europa and answer questions about how they interact with one another to create a habitable world. In addition to building the spacecraft’s communications, propulsion, and power systems, APL is contributing two science instruments: the Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding, which scientists will use to determine the thickness of the ice that encases Europa as well as the depth and salinity of its ocean; and the Europa Imaging System, which will cover the moon in unprecedented high resolution.

Beyond Pluto

Not even four years after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft left Pluto and its moons in the rearview mirror—and revolutionized humankind’s view of these small, dynamic worlds on the edge of our solar system—the APL-built and -operated probe conducted a flyby of an ancient Kuiper Belt object, named Arrokoth, on New Year’s Day 2019. Arrokoth is the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft, more than a billion miles farther from our Sun than Pluto. New Horizons continues its speedy voyage deeper into the Kuiper Belt, hurtling toward the doorstep of interstellar space while making groundbreaking measurements of dust and the heliospheric plasma environment far from the Sun.

Touching the Sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe—designed and built at APL—launched in August 2018 and has already traveled closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history. Parker Solar Probe is making detailed observations of the magnetic field, plasma, and accelerated particles in the Sun’s corona, finally answering fundamental questions that have puzzled scientists for decades—like why is the corona hotter than the Sun’s surface, and why does solar wind exist? By making these measurements in the region where solar wind is created and where the most hazardous solar energetic particles are energized, Parker Solar Probe is improving our ability to characterize and forecast the dynamics of the heliosphere and the resulting effects that influence space weather on Earth and in the orbital regions where future explorers will live and work.

Titan Exploration

Dragonfly is a NASA mission that will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Led by APL, this revolutionary rotorcraft-lander expedition will study the atmosphere, carbon-based chemistry, and geology of this cold yet Earthlike moon and ultimately advance our understanding of life’s chemical origins. Set to launch in 2027 and reach Titan in the mid-2030s, Dragonfly takes a revolutionary approach to planetary exploration by using a rotorcraft to fly between diverse locations, landing and sampling materials at more than two dozen sites across Titan’s surface.

Studying the Far Edge of the Solar Wind

Set to launch in 2025, NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission will help researchers better understand what happens at the boundary of the heliosphere, where the Sun’s protective magnetic field ends. This boundary is where the solar wind collides with materials from interstellar space; these collisions protect our solar system from much of the hazardous cosmic radiation, and IMAP will study the particles that get through that protective shield. Designed, built, and operated by APL, IMAP will be positioned about one million miles from Earth (at what is called the first Lagrange point, or L1). Data from the mission will help to reveal how cosmic rays are filtered by the heliosphere, which will shed light on a number of research fields, from risks to astronaut health and space technology to the beginnings of life in the universe.