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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the premier center for robotic space exploration. Some of the most profound discoveries about our planetary neighborhood have been relayed from JPL-managed spacecraft dispatched throughout the solar system.

computer generated image of a conceptual Mars's vehicle
One of several Mars sample return mission concepts under consideration by NASA and engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL's roots can be traced to the 1930s and 1940s, as students from the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena pioneered rocket motor technology. This work led to the establishment of JPL. In December 1958, after many years of work for the U.S. Army and other defense agencies, JPL was brought into the NASA organization. Under a continuous NASA contract with the California Institute of Technology, JPL is focused on robotic space exploration for the 21st century.

Peering into the future at JPL is not difficult. Turn any corner of the sprawling complex nestled within the San Gabriel Mountains and you will find cutting-edge research. JPL's Center for Space Microelectronics Technology (CSMT) is a case in point.

CSMT's Microdevices Laboratory is a state-of-the-art facility focused on creating the building blocks enabling NASA's vision of smaller, faster, cheaper spacecraft. Micromachined seismometers, gyroscopes, accelerometers, even weather stations, are being designed at CSMT. Devices based on silicon, III-V compound semiconductors, and superconductors can be fabricated with nano-meter-sized features. A multitude of advanced microdevices are being developed, such as infrared detectors, millimeter and submillimeter wave sensors, ultraviolet, x-ray, and photonic devices, micromagnetic devices, chemical sensors, and electronic neural networks. Rapid prototyping of devices--from concept to actual technology--in less than two years has been demonstrated.

Returning information over laser beams from far away distances across the solar system is another promising research arena. Laser communication (lasercom) technology has been under active JPL development for several years. Laser satellite communications terminals would benefit civilian, military, and commercial interests. This next generation of telecommunications could replace everything from fiber/cable links and microwave to traditional radio frequency communications. Commercial applications include communication between distant buildings, as well as bypassing normal Internet backbone hardware through the use of communicating satellites ringing the Earth.

conceptual spacecraft that designed for the DS 1 mission
In the past, all new instruments have made their debuts on expensive missions, but that is about to change. The New Millennium program is a series of low-cost space missions expressly designed to test out new technologies, starting with the DS 1 mission in 1998. This program is but one example of how JPL works with its sponsors to find creative solutions for the successful development of innovative and new technologies.

Engineers in JPL's Optical Communications Group have shown that laser satellite communication equipment can provide advantages of 3:1 in mass and 2:1 in power relative to microwave systems. The vast distances to deep space make data return via conventional radio frequency techniques extremely difficult. Lasercom technology can meet the needs of a variety of space missions, including intersatellite links, Earth to near-space links, and deep space missions.

Microdevices and laser telecommunications represent a tiny fraction of JPL's roadmap into the future. JPL is the Center of Excellence in deep space systems, and provides instrument technology for NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. In this regard, JPL scientists have built an integrated program of research on the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon. El Niño monitoring via satellites has helped validate methods to better understand and appreciate the nuances of global climate change.

JPL's New Millennium program features smaller, more compact and more versatile spacecraft than robotic probes of the past. Carrying state-of-the-art electronics, propulsion, sensors, and other hardware, New Millennium craft are being built to fly to asteroids, comets, and develop the technology required to search for planets circling other stars. The first of this class of spacecraft is Deep Space 1 (DS 1). A primary objective of DS 1 is to validate solar electric propulsion, among twelve new technologies being evaluated for use on future space missions.

In development at JPL are missions to explore Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, as well as the Sun and distant Pluto. The red planet Mars is the site for increased robotic exploration as Mars Surveyor orbiters and surface landers reconnoiter the planet. These missions are designed to understand Martian geology, geophysics, mineralogy, and climate, helping to determine whether or not Mars has been, or is even now, an abode for life. Critical to adequately survey Mars and its range of geological diversity is mobility. Robotic vehicles capable of rolling across the Martian terrain are required, not only to move from locale to locale, but also to inspect and gather soil and rock samples. Part of the challenge will be to establish criteria to distinguish between materials of biological and non-biological origin both for sample selection and in sample analysis on Earth. In 2005, the first Mars sample return mission will be underway.

Another JPL mission being readied is Stardust, which begins a trek to comet Wild-2 in February 1999, collecting dust and other materials tossed off from the object, then returns those samples to Earth.

A trio of JPL missions, tagged "Ice and Fire" with spacecraft launched in 2003, 2004, and 2007, respectively, are headed for ice-covered Europa, distant Pluto, and to fly close-up to the Sun.

JPL's exploration quest includes the Origins program, a sweeping initiative within the NASA Space Science Enterprise to address how the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets form and evolve. A sequence of JPL projects is being blueprinted to first detect, then image and survey, Earth-like planets beyond our solar system. These JPL pursuits call for the development and utilization of revolutionary technologies to achieve mission goals considered impossible in prior decades. Demonstrating the challenges ahead is JPL's Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). It will be the world's first long-baseline optical interferometer in space. With the unprecedented astronomical accuracy and high spatial resolution, SIM is being designed to allow indirect detection of planets through observation of thousands of stars and investigate the structure of planetary disks with nulling imaging.

SIM is the technological precursor to the Terrestrial Planet Finder, an infrared interferometer assigned the difficult duty of direct detection of terrestrial planetary companions to other stars, and also for detecting spectral lines which might indicate a habitable planet. If successful, 21st century technology will allow the spotting of "pale blue dots." These Earth-like worlds may be the future destination of robotic interstellar probes, followed by star sailors of generations hence.


from the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite shows the precise shape of the ocean's surface and how it changes over time TOPEX/Poseidon satellite measures the precise shape of the ocean's surface and how it changes through time. The satellite's measurements are the most precise tool we have for figuring out if sea level is rising, calculating ocean currents, and identifying climate trends such as El Niño.

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