This month marks an amazing 65 years since Explorer 1 became the very first successfully launched satellite by the United States.
Sent to space on 31 January 1958, Explorer 1’s success marked the beginning of the U.S. Space Age.
Since then, more than 250 robotic spacecraft have ventured into space, with each vehicle launched more advanced than the previous one.
To commemorate over six decades of space exploration breakthroughs, here are three stellar NASA records.
Heaviest self-powered vehicle
Weighing in at 3,106 tonnes (6.65 million Ib), the Crawler-Transporter 2 holds the record title for the heaviest self-powered vehicle.
The astronomical vehicle, which is operated by NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, was designed to carry rockets from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad.
Crawler-Transporter 2 is one of a pair of giant tracked vehicles built by the Marion Power Shovel Company for NASA between March 1963 and January 1966.
Their original purpose was to carry the Apollo program's Saturn V rockets and their mobile Launch platforms the roughly 4 miles (6.7 km) from the Vehicle Assembly Building to either launch pad 39A or 39B.
As originally built, they weighed around 2,700 tonnes (5.95 million lb).
After the last Saturn V launched in 1973, the two crawler-transporters were repurposed to support the Space Shuttle program.
Then, following the shuttle's retirement in 2011, Crawler-Transporter 2 was selected for a series of upgrades that would allow it to carry the planned Space Launch System and its mobile launcher platform.
These upgrades, which included replacing the two massive locomotive engines that provide power to the four sets of caterpillar tracks and strengthening various other systems, brought the vehicle's overall weight up to what it is now.
Crawler-transporter 2 is 131 ft long and 114 ft wide (39.9 x 34.7 m; about the size of a baseball infield).
The height is variable (it has a hydrualic levelling system that can raise, lower, and tilt the top deck) but maxes out at 26 feet (7.92 m).
It is not designed to carry rockets directly, but rather to carry the mobile launcher platforms they are sitting on.
These platforms are locked into place at the launchpad, and the Crawler-Transporter withdraws back down the crawlerway some days before the launch takes place.
There are larger land-based vehicles, most notably the TAKRAF Bagger 293 bucket-wheel excavator, but these vehicles require an external power source to function.
The Crawler-Transporters generate all their own power using a set of locomotive diesel engines.
Crawler-Transporter 2 has a theoretical maximum speed of 2 mph (3.2 km/h) unloaded, but NASA engineers have never tried pushing it that hard.
Largest space telescope / most expensive telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) isn’t just the most expensive telescope, but the largest space telescope as well.
The telescope, which has a primary mirror diameter of 6.5 metres (21 ft 3 in), was launched on 25 December 2021 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, and arrived at the Sun–Earth L2 Lagrange point in January 2022.
But the cost of such a mighty telescope doesn't come cheap.
The JWST is estimated to have cost $9.5 billion (7 billion pounds) to design and build between 2003 and 2021.
At the time of the JWST's launch on 25 December 2021, an additional $861 million had been allocated to support the first five years of the telescope's operation.
The bulk of the costs were borne by NASA, whose contribution to the telescope's development was estimated in 2021 to have come to $8.8 billion.
The first JWST image was released to the public via a press conference on 11 July 2022.
As the largest optical telescope in space, its high resolution and sensitivity allow it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the preceding Hubble Space Telescope.
Because of its ability to see more deeply into spacetime, the JWST has changed the way we see the universe.
The telescope is capable of collecting enough light from astronomical objects — ranging from birthing stars to exoplanets — to reveal what they are made of and how they are moving through space.
The JWST uses infrared light, which cannot be perceived by the human eye, to study every phase in cosmic history.
The telescope's four scientific instruments are specifically designed to capture infrared light and are able to peer through cosmic dust to study colder or very distant objects.
The JWST is the result of over 20 years of planning and development and has several elements that make it unique and help ensure it will meet its objectives:
- Golden mirror: The telescope’s main mirror is 6.5 metres wide (21 ft 3 in), making it the largest space telescope ever built. The mirror is made up of 18 hexagonal gold-coated beryllium segments that can be adjusted individually.
- Sunshield: To protect itself from the Sun's heat, the telescope also has a tennis court-sized sunshield. One of its instruments also has a refrigeration system to keep it cool, because the heat from the Sun would otherwise interfere with the telescope's observations.
- Deployment: The telescope is so large, it needed to be folded to fit into the Ariane 5 rocket that launched it into space. It took nearly two weeks to fully unfold, and two more weeks to reach its final destination.
- Instruments: Aside from the Canadian-made scientific instrument NIRISS, the Webb Telescope contains three other partner-contributed scientific instruments: NIRCam (NASA), NIRSpec (European Space Agency [ESA]) and MIRI (NASA/ESA).
- High-frequency radio transmitter: Large radio antennas spread out throughout the globe receive Webb's transmitter signals and forward them to the Webb Science and Operation Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, USA.
In addition to orbiting the Sun, the JWST makes a tight orbit around a point in space known as Lagrange 2, or L2.
This point is located 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. Its distant location gives the telescope an unobstructed view of the sky, flawlessly “unfolding the universe” before our very eyes.
Largest planetary rover
Built for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA, Perseverance is the largest planetary rover.
Perseverance, nicknamed Percy, is a car-sized Mars rover designed to explore the Jezero Crater on Mars as part of NASA's Mars 2020 mission.
The rover was designed to look for signs of past microbial life, cache rock and soil samples, and prepare for future human exploration.
Built to the same basic design as its sibling Curiosity, the rover has some additional scientific equipment and a ride-along experimental helicopter, as well as mechanical upgrades (such as stronger wheels), which make it significantly heavier.
Perseverance, which touched down in the Jezero Crater on 2020 February 18, has a mass of 1,026.4 kg (2,262.8 lb), compared to Curiosity's 900 kg (1,984 lb).
The most important upgrades over Curiosity's design are the larger, stronger wheels (Curiosity's have sustained more severe damage than expected), a higher quality main camera array (Supercam) and improvements to the onboard computer system that will allow the rover to handle more tasks simultaneously (such as operating instruments while moving).
The most significant new piece of equipment on Perseverance are the sample return tubes and the systems that go with them.
The test tubes were put through a series of cleaning processes that reduced the quantity of organic compounds within the tubes to less than one part per billion, or no more than 150 nanograms of material in each tube, making them the cleanest objects ever manufactured.
These ultra-clean test tubes are designed to form the first step in a long and complex undertaking called the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.
As it travels, Perseverance fills these tubes with samples, seals them up, and leaves them in caches on the Martian surface.
The mechanism used to accomplish this is astoundingly intricate and complex and includes a second robotic arm in the underside of the rover body.
Perhaps it was these upgrades made to the rover which made it powerful enough to achieve the farthest distance driven in a single Martian day, when on 14 February 2022, it drove 319.786 m (1,049 ft 2 in) in the Jezero Crater.
The Jezero Crater is a 45-km-wide (28-mile) basin in Mars's northern hemisphere.
It was initially chosen as the landing site based on many years of observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other Martian satellites, which revealed evidence of a 3.5-billion-year-old river delta and lake.
Though any trace of this surface water has long since vanished, scientists believe this location gives Perseverance the best possible chance of finding fossil evidence of microbial life – a long-term goal of NASA's Mars exploration program.
On July 5 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter crossed an area of loose, wind-blown sand called Séítah in the Jezero Crater, bypassing an obstacle that the Perseverance rover was having to navigate around.
The flight, which came to be known as Ingenuity flight 9, covered a distance of 625 m (2,051 ft) and earned the record title for the farthest flight on Mars and the first controlled flight on Mars.
NASA’s Perseverance rover got into the Martian atmosphere in a protective back shell that was equipped with a 70.5 feet (21.5 metres) diameter parachute.
The SR03 parachute, which was built by Airborne Systems (USA) specifically for Perseverance, withstood a peak load of 67,336 lbf (299.52 kN) at Mach 1.85 during atmospheric testing on 7 September 2018, becoming the strongest supersonic parachute.