The End of an Era in Space Flight, and the Beginning of AnotherS

This image from NASA shows the Space Shuttle Endeavor waiting on the launch pad last night, with lightning streaking the sky. In 48 hours (delayed from this afternoon), the final launch of the Endeavor will mark the end of the Space Shuttle program.

The United States will be sending fewer people into space, but we're still just entering the Space Age. Many other nations will be sending people into space. And NASA will be gathering more data than ever about our local part of the solar system, as well as what it will take to colonize the Moon, Mars, and possibly even the asteroid belt. Though the Shuttle Atlantis recently got the go-ahead to fly a mission in June, this summer marks the end of an era. Today, we salute the penultimate flight in an amazing space program, and the Endeavor's last run.

The End of an Era in Space Flight, and the Beginning of AnotherS

The Space Shuttle Endeavor has been operational since early May 1991, and has flown some of the longest Shuttle missions, as well as setting records for the most space walks at once time (three). Its upcoming mission is set to last 14 days, and will involve docking at the ISS to deliver some spare parts, as well as setting up one of the year's most eagerly-anticipated science experiments.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment, a massive piece of instrumentation that the Shuttle will be delivering to the International Space Station, will measure cosmic rays in space. It will be focused on searching for dark matter and anti-matter, as well as more exotic objects in space.

According to NASA:

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is a state-of-the-art, high energy particle physics experiment built in Geneva by a collaboration of 16 different countries. It will search for clues on what the universe is made of and how it began, the origin of dark matter, antimatter and strangelets, pulsars, blazers and gamma ray bursters. And that's just what the scientists know to look for.

"I am quite confident that once we start measuring data in space, we will find things that we never anticipated," NASA's AMS Project Manager Trent Martin said. "And those things will lead to potential new areas of study, new areas of science and maybe even redefine some of the physics books."

With the retirement of Endeavor, the U.S. space program will turn toward research and using autonomous space probes to explore other planets, moons, and asteroids. (Here is a primer on what Obama's NASA budget allocations include.)

Though we will miss the Space Shuttle program, and celebrate all the brave astronauts who participated, we are also looking forward to some launches coming up later this year. In November 2011, we will see the launch of our newest Mars Rover, called Curiosity. A bigger, more sophisticated version of the Mars Rovers who have roamed the Red Planet's surface for over 7 years, Curiosity will be a veritable laboratory, set up to learn more about water on Mars as well as what we'll need to know to colonize one day.

The End of an Era in Space Flight, and the Beginning of AnotherS

In August, the Juno mission to Jupiter launches. In its 2011 report, NASA describes Juno like this:

The Juno mission, scheduled to launch in 2011, will probe Jupiter's gravity, composition, and magnetic fields to search for the origin of planets. Arriving at Jupiter in 2016, Juno will determine how much water is in the planet's atmosphere. It will look deeply into the atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions, and other properties. Juno's instruments also will map Jupiter's magnetic and gravity fields and magnetosphere. This evidence will help us understand planetary formation and how magnetic force fields affect the atmospheres

It will also be carrying a color camera, which it will to take the first detailed pictures humans have ever seen of Jupiter's polar regions.

Want to know what else comes after the Space Shuttle for America's space program? Find out via NASA.

Top photograph by NASA/Bill Ingalls