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Humanity has snapped detailed portraits of planets and moons throughout our solar system. But there's one missing from the album: Pluto.

Although Pluto was discovered in 1930, it has remained stubbornly hard to photograph. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken the best pictures, and frankly, they stink.

NASA TV/AP

NASA's unmanned Orion spacecraft has successfully splashed down about 400 miles west of La Paz, Mexico, in the Pacific Ocean after a liftoff, two orbits and reentry that lasted just under 4 1/2 hours.

Orion, which could one day take astronauts to Mars, made a "bullseye splashdown" at 11:29 a.m. ET, mission control said, after the spacecraft enduring a searing 4,000 degree Fahrenheit re-entry before being gently lowered to the ocean surface under four giant red-and-white parachutes.

Radislav Sinyak NASA/Rad Sinyak

At 7:05 a.m. Thursday, the unmanned Orion test vehicle is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket to begin a two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission called Exploration Flight Test-1.

NASA is about to launch a new spaceship into orbit, and Mallory Loe has never heard of it.

"I mean, technically, NASA doesn't have another spaceship, do they?" she asks incredulously during a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

She's hardly the only one who doesn't know about this new spacecraft. In fact, none of a half-dozen tourists NPR interviewed in the museum's lobby was aware of the Orion spaceship.

This week, a 3-D printer fabricated a part for itself. Normally, that wouldn't make headlines — except that it happened in space.

"It's a history-making moment for us because it's the first time ever that we're talking about transitioning from launching every part we might need in space from Earth, to actually being able to email a file, a design to space and make that part on demand," says Niki Werkheiser, the project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft conducted a 33-minute burn of its six main engines to ease into an orbit around Mars after a nearly yearlong, 442 million-mile voyage from Earth. The probe's mission is to study the red planet's atmosphere.

Earlier this week NASA announced that two private companies will build spaceships to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA hopes that both models will eventually be used by space tourists to get into orbit. Which got us wondering, which one would we rather fly in?

NASA has chosen Boeing and SpaceX to build the vehicles that will transport its astronauts to the International Space Station, putting the two American companies on a course to take over a job that NASA has recently relied upon Russia to perform: carrying out manned space flights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says vehicles from the two companies are expected to be ready for service by 2017.

Announcing its decision Tuesday, the space agency included these details:

Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

NASA is a giant step closer to launching Americans again from U.S. soil.

On Tuesday, the space agency announced it has picked Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in the next few years.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden named the winners of the competition at Kennedy Space Center, next door to where the launches should occur in a few years.

Orion Makes A Move

Sep 12, 2014
Rad Sinyak / NASA

NASA has finished building the crew module of its newest spacecraft- Orion.

The spacecraft was moved out of the Kennedy Space Center facility Thursday where engineers have been getting it ready.

Orion’s cone-shaped crew module, stacked on top of a white service module, emerged from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building on a special flat bed transporter.

It was moved to a new facility where it will be fueled up with ammonia and hyper propellants for its test flight slated for December.

The crew capsule can seat four astronauts.

Jon Morse, former astrophysics division director at NASA, can remember the exact moment he knew things had to change.

Taisha Henry / WMFE

Escalating unrest in the Ukraine is adding urgency to NASA’s decision on the space craft that will replace the shuttle.

The space agency is expected to announce any day the space craft that will fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

Two candidates – Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser – rely on the Atlas V rocket to launch into space. But the rocket is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine.

Dale Ketcham of Space Florida says the Atlas V rocket is vital to American space flight.

A New Space Race To Replace the Shuttle

Aug 15, 2014
Photo by Taisha Henry.

For the first time in a generation American astronauts will fly into space aboard a new spacecraft beginning in 2017.

But it won’t be a NASA spacecraft. Instead three private space companies are competing to design and build it under a NASA contract.

When NASA announces the winner or winners in a few weeks, it will mark the start of a new era in human space flight.

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Anticipation is building for the unmanned Orion flight in December. The new capsule, designed to carry astronauts into deep space again, will be sitting on top of a huge Delta IV heavy rocket. Lockheed Martin is building the capsule in the renovated Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy. Florida threw $35 million at the project to make sure it was located here. The project employs about 150 people currently. The goal is to have a manned Orion launch in 2021. On my tour there last week, I saw the capsule under construction in the 1964 operations building, now named after Neil Armstrong and completely renovated. The Orion is the first capsule to be built at Kennedy. It the past, capsules were only inspected there after being manufactured elswhere.

An audacious quest to reconnect with a vintage NASA spacecraft has suffered a serious setback and is now pretty much over.

The satellite launched in 1978 and has been in a long, looping orbit around the sun for about three decades. Earlier this year, NPR told you about an effort to get in touch with this venerable piece of NASA hardware and send it on one more adventure.

But there are no guarantees when you try to recapture the past.

A gung-ho group of space enthusiasts has started the process of putting a vintage NASA spacecraft on a new flight path, so that this venerable piece of hardware will be able to do useful science once again.

You might call it the ultimate long shot — a group of space enthusiasts trying to re-establish contact with a wayward satellite launched in 1978. Figuratively speaking, it's been off the radar for decades.

No more.

"The initial contact was a tone followed by specific commands," project organizer Keith Cowing told NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce by email. "We learned a lot simply by being able to talk to it and get it to do things.

"May not sound like much but that was a huge unknown," he adds.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

An all-new meteor shower makes its debut tonight, and astronomers say it could put on a show starting as early as 10:30 p.m. ET Friday and peaking early Saturday. Called the Camelopardalids, the shower is named after the giraffe constellation. It's expected to be visible in nearly all of the U.S., if skies are clear.

"No one has seen it before," NASA says, "but the shower could put on a show that would rival the prolific Perseid meteor shower in August."

It is Rocket Science: $100M for New NASA Rocket?

May 23, 2014

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, linked the plan to heightened tension with Russia in a news release. “Mr. Putin’s Russia is giving us some problems,” said Nelson, a senior member of the committee. “So we put $100 million in the defense bill to develop a state-of-the-art rocket engine to make sure that we have assured access to space for our astronauts as well as our military space payloads.”

Some of you might remember the music video rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shot aboard the International Space Station. That was a year ago, and the YouTube video he made, which is now approaching 23 million views, is set to come down Tuesday as the licensing agreement on the iconic song expires.

Keith Cowing discusses his campaign to save an old 1970s NASA spacecraft from becoming space junk. ISEE-3/ICE is a satellite that was once used to monitor space weather, but it's been unused for decades. NASA doesn't want to spend the money to bring it back to life, but Cowing and his colleagues are determined to do it. If they can raise $125,000 on a crowdfunding site called RocketHub, Cowing says they'll contact ISEE-3/ICE, wake it up and put it back to good use.

This month, NASA revealed new details of the plan to send humans to Mars by 2030. It's an elaborate and expensive mission, involving a giant deep-space rocket, and roping an asteroid into the moon's orbit to use as a stepping stone to Mars.

But there are still some serious questions about a manned expedition to Mars. Namely, is it safe? That's where astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly come in. The Kelly brothers are identical twins, and the only siblings ever to both fly in space.

NASA's Ambitious Plan To Send Humans To Mars

Apr 21, 2014

The nation’s space agency is gearing up to put humans on Mars within the next two decades. NASA is testing a supersonic lander that can carry heavy loads, and just signed a 20-year lease on a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

Mike Gazarik is associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that going to Mars is part of Americans’ pioneering spirit, and will also have benefits for life on Earth.

NASA is suspending "the majority of its ongoing engagements" with its Russian counterpart over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Verge, which first broke the news based on a leaked memo, reports that "the suspension includes travel to Russia, teleconferences, and visits by Russian government officials to NASA facilities. NASA is even suspending the exchange of emails with Russian officials."

NASA confirmed the story in a statement late Wednesday.

More than 30 years ago, Robert Farquhar stole a spacecraft.

Now he's trying to give it back.

The green satellite, covered with solar panels, is hurtling back toward the general vicinity of Earth, after nearly three decades of traveling in a large, looping orbit around the sun.

Cash prizes await "citizen scientists" who can improve algorithms that help NASA find and identify asteroids in our solar system, the agency says. A contest to find more asteroids begins next week, in what NASA calls an attempt to crowdsource innovation.

It's nighttime. You are hovering high off the planet looking down. Things are happening. Strange, beautiful, wonderful things.

The White House has approved NASA's call for four more years for the International Space Station, ensuring that the orbiting science laboratory will keep going for another decade, according to documents obtained by The Orlando Sentinel.

The newspaper writes:

NASA has decided to go ahead with a series of spacewalks to fix a broken cooling system aboard the International Space Station.

The decision was made Tuesday by station managers. They said the extra-vehicular activity should take place as soon as possible to replace a coolant pump that contains a bad valve.

The Associated Press says:

"The spacewalks are taking priority over the launch of a supply ship from Virginia. The delivery had been scheduled for this week, but is now delayed until January."

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