You may have heard about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but many people don’t actually know what their role is in regards to space. The organization is responsible for design and development of interplanetary spacecraft and satellite projects. The organization manages the NASA Deep Space Network and has been involved in over 100 space missions including Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars Rover explorations.
The organization originally was part of California Institute of Technology (CalTech). The laboratory was an institute that specialized in aeronautics research. In 1936, rocket experiments were performed to test a student’s thesis. The student’s instructor, an aerodynamicist, generated military financial support for the experiments. The jet-assisted rockets were demonstrated to the US Army in 1941. Two years later, the former students started Aerojet Corporation. The existing university laboratory became an Army facility operated by California institute of Technology. The facility name became Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lab worked on military projects until transfer to NASA in 1958. Jet Propulsion Laboratory became the planetary spacecraft center.
The first few projects under NASA were satellite missions. There were five total Explorer missions. The missions were part of the US response to Sputnik 1, from the Soviet Union. The first satellite featured a cosmic ray detector and micrometeorite detector. The Explorer series discovered Earth’s radiation belts (the Van Allen belts).
The next set of missions, part of the Mariner series, were designed as probes to collect data about Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed the robotic interplanetary probes used for the missions. These spacecraft included additional instrumentation including a microwave radiometer, infrared radiometer, electrostatic analyzer, cosmic dust detector, and more. The Mariner spacecraft used solar panels for power. Two-an-a-half stage rockets were used to launch the spacecraft. The Mariner missions continued until the early 1970’s.
In the 1980’s space exploration increased and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory created multiple new spacecraft. Missions have ranged from satellite launches, to deep space exploration.
Many of the missions that are scheduled in the next few years are destined for Mars. The InSight mission, originally set for launch in 2016 was suspended due to an instrumentation problem. The instrumentation needs to be repaired to perform correctly on the -49 degree Fahrenheit surface of the red planet. The launch has been rescheduled for 2018.