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IntroductionScientists use powerful telescopes—on Earth and in space—to study distant stars and galaxies. The famous Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed the cosmos in great detail for the first time, will soon be replaced by the even more powerful James Webb Space Telescope. Meanwhile, the Kepler mission has scoured a section of our galaxy in search of other planets.
Five robotic spacecraft have sufficient velocity to escape the bounds of our solar system and travel into interstellar space, but only one—NASA’s Voyager 1—has crossed that boundary so far. Voyager 1 transitioned into interstellar space in 2012. Voyager 2 likely will be next. Both spacecraft, launched in 1977, are still in contact with NASA’s Deep Space Network.
NASA’s New Horizons, which flew past Pluto in 2015 and is currently exploring the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, will eventually leave our solar system. As will the now inactive Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft.
Before 1983, the only confirmed planets were those in our own solar system, though scientists believed many planets were in orbit around distant stars. Then a team in 1983 spotted a disc around Beta Pictoris believed to be made up of the raw materials of planet formation—the first evidence of an exoplanet. The first exoplanet was discovered nine years later in 1992 and the numbers of known planets beyond our solar system have been growing rapidly ever since.
For more discoveries and stories of exploration, visit the Exoplanets Exploration Timeline.
The following missions are planetary science missions with enough velocity to travel beyond our solar system. For a full list of mission to explore beyond our solar system, visit NASA’s Astrophysics Division.
Astronauts pave the way for human exploration beyond our Earth. They are pilots, scientists, engineers, teachers, and more.
Project managers guide missions from concept to completion, working closely with team members to accomplish what they set out to do.
Sample processors protect and preserve samples delivered back to Earth so they can be studied by scientists.
The first thing that fired my imagination for planetary science was when the NASA Voyager spacecraft discovered active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io.
Melding science with design, artists create everything from large-scale installations to the NASA posters hanging in your bedroom.
Media specialists tells stories across social media and help feature missions and people on TV and in films, books, magazines, and news sites.
Writers/producers capture the incredible stories of NASA's missions and people and share them with the world.
Administrators and directors work out of NASA headquarters, prioritizing science questions and seeking to expand the frontiers of discovery.
Whether it's introducing kids to space or teaching physics to PhD candidates, educators help share their knowledge with the public.
Engineers design and build all types of machines, from what a spacecraft looks like to the software that directs where a rover goes each day.
From an astrophysicist to a volcanologist, scientists of all types pose questions and help find answers to the mysteries of our universe.
The important thing about being a scientist or an engineer is learning how to think critically, learning how to be creative, learning problem solving and learning how to learn.