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Space on the cheap well, sort of

Theres no such thing as a free launch. But despite the high costs of getting into space, NASA will launch an innovative program that will spur the creation of low cost space missions. Called the Small Explorer (SMEX) program, SMEX missions will study the deep universe, Earth, Sun, black holes, stars, and Earthlike planets around nearby stars. The first SMEX mission could launch by 2015. Each mission will be capped at $105 million excluding the launch vehicle. So far, several SMEX missions look promising, according to a NASA new release this week: Coronal Physics Explorer will use a solar coronograph to study the processes responsible for accelerating the solar wind and generating the coronal mass ejections that can impact the Earth. Gravity and Extreme Magnetism SMEX. GEMS will use an X-ray telescope to track the flow of highly magnetized matter into supermassive black holes. Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph will use a solar telescope and spectrograph to reveal the dynamics of the solar chromosphere and transition region. JANUS will use a gamma-ray burst monitor to point its infrared telescope at the most distant galaxies to measure the star-formation history of the universe. NICE will use a suite of remote sensing and in situ instruments to discover how winds and the composition of the upper atmosphere drive the electrical fields and chemical reactions that control the Earth's ionosphere. Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use a bank of six telescopes to observe the brightest 2.5 million stars and discover more than 1,000 Earth-to-Jupiter-sized planets around them. NASA just received these various mission proposals. An evaluation board will select the finalists at a later date. Named in the tradition of Americas first orbiting satellite, Explorer 1, launched in 1958, Small Explorer will provide frequent, low-cost access to space with small to mid-sized spacecraft. Whats in the Sky: Between June 7-9 the Moon joins Mars, Saturn, and the star Regulus in the night sky. The red planet Mars is to the right of the Moon June 7. Look for Regulus and Saturn next to the Moon June 8. The gang of four form a cosmic conga line on June 9: Moon, Saturn, Regulus, and Mars takes up the rear. Lou Varricchio is a former NASA senior science writer involved with the X-33 program. He is currently involved with the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont.

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