Los Alamos has a long history of strong satellite and space-related programs. These include discovery of water on the Moon and Mars, understanding of the solar wind and the magnetospheres of Earth and Saturn.
Los Alamos' contribution to the space program began with the Rover project, an effort to build a nuclear-powered rocket for space exploration, in the late 1950s. During that era, Los Alamos scientists also began developing radioactive batteries to power satellites, a predecessor to today's radioisotope thermoelectric generators.
A huge discovery came in 1973 when cosmic gamma-ray bursts were discovered with Lab instrumentation aboard the Vela 4 satellite. Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe. Their discovery showed astrophysicists that the cosmos is more chaotic and transient that previously thought.
The Los Alamos space plasma team has been directly involved in NASA space exploration programs since the early 1970s. In 1971 a Lab plasma experiment was launched aboard the Interplanetary Monitoring Program Six spacecraft. The experiment studied solar wind within the Earth's atmosphere.
In October 1977, the International Sun-Earth Explorer One and Two satellites were launched into the highly elliptical Earth orbit. Each craft carried a plasma experiment designed primarily to study the physical nature of the major boundaries found within Earth's near-space environment. These experiments showed for the first time that mass and energy are transferred from the solar wind to Earth's magnetosphere.
In 2001 the GENESIS solar wind probe, containing three Lab-built instruments, rocketed into space. The probe returned solar wind particles to Earth, which will be studied over the next century by scientists from all over the globe in search of answers to fundamental questions about the exact composition of the sun and solar system.
In 1989, Lab scientists began work on the X-ray Multi-Mirror (XMM) satellite observatory. XMM-Newton, one of the two most powerful X-ray observatories ever placed in orbit, performed the survey of M31 (the Andromeda galaxy) during a series of observations from 2000 to 2002. The study uncovered hundreds of x-ray sources and provided new insights into the nature of our galaxy.
In October 1990, the Ulysses satellite was launched by the space shuttle Discovery. It studies the sun, the solar wind and interstellar space. It flew by Jupiter in 1992, and using the planet's gravitational pull as a sing shot, it was propelled out of the ecliptic plane—the plane in which the planets orbit. It then probed the sun's polar regions, while not actually traveling near the sun, using a Los Alamos experiment called the Solar Wind Observations Over the Poles of the Sun experiment.
The $17 million ALEXIS satellite embarked on its mission in April, 1993. The small research satellite carried six X-ray telescopes which scanned the entire sky every six months and searched for variations in soft-x-ray emission from sources such as white dwarfs, cataclysmic variable stars and flare stars. ALEXIS completed its mission in 2005.
Two Los Alamos-designed sensors are on the NASA Advanced Composite Explorer, a satellite launched in August 1997 that may provide some insight into the formation and evolution of the solar system.
In October 1997, the Cassini mission blasted into space on its seven-year, 2.2 billion mile trip to Saturn. The onboard plutonium powered batteries, called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), produce electricity. Los Alamos produced the plutonium heat sources used in the RTGs.
In 1997, the Monitoring X-Ray Experiment, or MOXE — a collaboration between the U.S. and Russia — was launched to monitor the sky's brightest x-ray sources.
The Lunar Prospector departed Earth in January 1998, carrying three Los Alamos instruments, and was designed for searching for water on the moon's surface. The Los Alamos studies carried out by the Lunar Prospector included data on Moonquake activity, further confirmation of the presence of water-ice on the moon, and mapping of iron and titanium using gamma-rays emitted when cosmic rays slam into the lunar surface.
In 2002 the Mars Odyssey took off, and on board was a Lab-built neutron spectrometer. Using it, scientists were able to locate hydrogen, most commonly in the form of water molecules, at or below Mars' surface.
In September 2005 the Milagro telescope began operations at the Fenton Hill site at LANL. It is the world's first instrument capable of continuously monitoring the entire overhead sky in the TeV (tera-electron volt) energy regime. It is also the first example of a large continuous pool being used as a gamma-ray telescope, and is ideally suited for the study of transient phenomena, such as gamma-ray bursts.