Space travel has been in the news on several fronts lately. Find out the latest developments and how they can help explain our place in the Universe.
I grew up during the Space Age, and it was an exciting time to be a child. We watched with bated breath as spaceflight after spaceflight accomplished things that humanity had never done before.
Between the time I was born, and when I turned twelve, we were treated to a total of twenty-six crewed NASA missions to outer space. The Soviets had beaten the US into orbit, which touched off a fiercely competitive streak in the Americans.
Over that decade, NASA achieved the first spacewalk, the first lunar orbit, and the first moon landing in 1969. All that space travel seemed to end the space race.
First Space Walk, First Lunar Orbit and First Moon Landing
There were six more missions to the moon, counting the unsuccessful Apollo 13. Still, by that time, public interest quickly faded, and congressional funding started drying up.
Space travel has been a much more scaled-back affair since the end of the Apollo program in 1973. NASA and other space agencies have limited their crewed missions to visits to space stations in low Earth orbit.
We’ve seen probes and rovers explore the other planets in our solar system. They’ve sent back awe-inspiring images of our neighbouring worlds, but that’s not as captivating for young minds as a team of humans striking out on a hero’s journey.
Team of Humans Striking Out on a Hero’s Journey
We’ve been seeing something of a renaissance in space travel in the past few years. We’ve seen examples of that on several fronts recently.
First of all, we saw an underdog nation join the space exploration club. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched a mission to Mars on July 20 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.
Their Mars orbiter named Hope is now en-route to the Red Planet. Hope’s mission is to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere.
Hope’s Mission – Complete Picture of Mars’ Atmosphere
This will include improving our understanding of Martian weather patterns by studying the lower atmosphere. It will also entail gaining a better understanding of how oxygen and hydrogen escape from Mars into space.
Like most spacefaring countries, the UAE is also looking for strategic spin-off benefits. They’re hoping that space travel will build scientific knowledge within their country and help prevent a brain drain of their best and brightest science and engineering.
NASA sent its own new mission to Mars on July 30. Known as Perseverance, it’s the latest autonomous rover to travel to our neighbouring planet.
Perseverance to Seek Microscopic Life on the Red Planet
Perseverance plans to touch down on the Martian surface in a formation called Jazero Crater on February 18, 2021. Its mission is to search for traces of microscopic life on the Red Planet.
The rover will do this using an array of seven instruments to analyze the soil and rock samples it collects. Perseverance will also conduct an experiment to test a planned technique for converting CO2 on Mars into oxygen.
Also, the new rover will be carrying a small helicopter called Ingenuity. This will be a basic test flight to verify that helicopters can work in Mars’ thin atmosphere. Perseverance has no instruments or research to do.
Rover Will Be Carrying a Helicopter Named Ingenuity
The third space travel event that’s come up lately concerns the Endeavor space capsule. Endeavour is a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX.
Endeavour made history back on May 30 when it became the first crewed spacecraft to launch from American soil in almost a decade. It carried astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS), where it docked the following day.
This week, the Crew Dragon received the go-ahead to ferry the two astronauts back to earth after two months on the ISS via a splashdown off the Florida coast.
Crew Dragon Received Go-Ahead to Ferry Astronauts Home
This mission is a crucial stage in NASA’s certification process for SpaceX as a crew transportation system. Assuming all goes well, SpaceX will be slotted into the rotating schedule for future ISS missions.
Further to that, SpaceX will launch its first certified Crew Dragon operational mission in about six weeks. This will involve carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS for a six-month stay.
While all this space travel was going on, the Astrophysical Journal Letters published a study by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Atacama, Chile. It includes some remarkable images because, for the first time, they have photographed two planets orbiting a star, not unlike our Sun.
ESO Photographed Two Planets Orbiting a Star Like Our Sun
The name of the star is TYC 8998-760-1. It’s about 300 light-years away, and its planetary system is a lot younger than our solar system. Team leader Alexander Bohm from Leiden University in the Netherlands explained, “This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our Solar System but at a much earlier stage of its evolution.”
Astronomers have been discovering exoplanets since 1995, and we’ve now spotted over 4,000 of them. Even so, we’re not usually able to see them directly.
Scientists locate planets around other stars by one of two methods. They can measure a star’s wobble to see if planets affect its gravity or measure its brightness to see if planets dim the star as they pass in front of it.
“Direct Observations are Important in the Search for Life”
Associate Professor Matthew Kenworthy co-authored the paper. He explained, “Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged. Direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life.”
Even the tiny fraction of images that Professor Kenworthy mentions don’t depict stars in the same category as our Sun. Their discovery confirms that our solar system is not unusual and suggests countless solar systems like ours are waiting to be discovered.
The events of the last few weeks reaffirm something about space travel we’ve seen for decades. Almost everything we know about the Universe and outer space comes, not from crewed missions, but from probes and ground-based telescopes.
Almost All We Know About Space is from Telescopes
We hear discussions about a crewed mission to Mars and even plans for a permanent outpost or a colony there. Yet, the actual, tangible results that help us understand our place in the Universe come from more straightforward approaches.
The Hope orbiter will help us better understand our own atmosphere and the climate crisis it’s enduring. Perseverance will shed light on long-unanswered questions about life on Mars. Meanwhile, a conventional optical telescope has shown us photographic evidence that stars like our Sun can and do host planets.
Astronauts inspire us, but telescopes and probes answer our questions. Those answers drive progress so that we can be confused by ever more profound and more important things.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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