Itt’s not hard to keep track of NASA’s big-ticket items—the high visibility spacecraft that generally carry equally high price tags and make very big headlines. There’s the $150 billion International Space Station; the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope; the $2.4 billion Perseverance Mars rover; and then, of course, the trouble-plagued, $4.1 billion-per-flight Space Launch System moon rocket. That’s an impressive handful for any national space agency.
NASA goes beyond its iconic missions. The multitude of spacecraft that NASA operates throughout the solar system is less well-known. At last count, NASA was managing no fewer than 14 active non-Earth orbit missions—from the Parker Solar Probe, which is studying the sun; to the Voyager 1 and 2 missions, which are reconnoitering the outer solar system; to the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter; to the fleet of ships on or orbiting Mars; to the various spacecraft studying various asteroids—and more. The missions range from the relatively young —Perseverance landed on Mars just over a year ago—to the very old: Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the first Star Wars movie was the nation’s number one box office hit.
NASA increased funding for no less than 8 deep space probes that were in danger due to budgetary constraints. This allowed them to extend their missions an average of 3 years. This was easy because of the high quality science they are returning and the fact their hardware works well even after many years. There are eight missions: the Mars Odyssey (Mars Reconnaissance) and MAVEN orbiters. These are all circling Mars. Also, the InSight lander & the Curiosity rover are both on Mars. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – which has been circling Mars since 2009 and is expected to return samples to Earth around 2029. OSIRIS Rex spacecraft gathered data from Bennu. New Horizons was launched in 2015. It flew past Pluto and returned four years after.
The spacecraft that is being used to extend the missions have different reasons. In addition to the science they’re already collecting, the Mars orbiters can also serve as data relay stations for future Mars landers—uncrewed and, one day, crewed. Uncrewed spacecraft can also be landed on the Moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. New Horizons will search for new Kuiper Belt objects. OSIRIS REX is making a stop to orbit Apophis near Earth asteroid, before finally returning home with its Bennu-rich bits.
The announcement of the contract extensions for the eight overachieving ships did not make much news this week—but it should have. NASA’s budget is tiny—just 0.4% of total U.S. federal outlays—yet it parlays that to maintain nothing less than an interplanetary flight wing. They do their job quietly and yet with great skill. They’ve earned every additional year of life NASA’s engineers can give them.
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