|Volume: 02, Issue: 09||05/03/2004|
The Future of Space ExplorationSpace Day is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of historic pioneersófrom ancient astronomers to the astronauts aboard today's International Space Stationóbut it is also the perfect day to look into the unknown future. After all, exploration is about discovering what we don't know today. Here are just a few of the missions the NASA and the European Space Agency have in store for our solar system and beyond in the early half of the 21st century.
Our first opportunity to observe space phenomena is right in our own backyards. The desire to explore our universe often begins with astronomical events we can witness with little assistance from advanced technology. Take for instance the aurora borealis, that prismatic display of dancing lights that anyone can view if the conditions are right.
In 2007, NASA will launch the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) mission to explore the causes of aurora borealis. THEMIS consists of 5 small satellites, carrying identical suites of electric, magnetic, and particle detectors, that will be put in carefully coordinated orbits. Every four days the satellites will line up along the Earth's magnetic tail, allowing them to track disturbances. The satellite data will be combined with observations of the aurora from a network of observatories across the Arctic Circle.
To learn more about THEMIS, visit:
NASA's New Horizons is an exciting scientific investigation to obtain the first close look at Pluto-Charon, a binary planet, and then multiple Kuiper Belt Objects. These objects on the edge of our solar system offer a unique look at the origins of our own planet and the solar system itself. New Horizons seeks to learn more about the surfaces, atmospheres, interiors and space environments of Pluto, Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects by using imaging, visible and infraredspectral mapping, ultraviolet spectroscopy, radio science, and plasma sensors. Scheduled to launch in 2006, the spacecraft should arrive at Pluto-Charon in 2015. Over a 150-day period it would conduct the first spacecraft reconnaissance of these worlds, and then continue into the Kuiper Belt for further encounters.
You can find the New Horizons homepage at:
Comets are time capsules that hold clues about the formation and evolution of the solar system. They are composed of ice, gas and dust, which is the primitive debris from the solar system's earliest and coldest formation periodó 4.5 billion years ago. Deep Impact, a NASA Discovery Mission, is the first space mission to probe beneath the surface of a comet and reveal the secrets of its interior.
On July 4, 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft arrives at Comet Tempel 1 to impact it with a 370-kg (~820-lbs) mass. On impact, a crater is produced expected to range in size from that of a house to that of a football stadium, and two to fourteen stories deep. Ice and dust debris are ejected from the crater, revealing fresh material beneath. Sunlight reflecting off the ejected material provides a dramatic brightening that fades slowly as the debris dissipates into space or falls back onto the comet. Images from cameras and a spectrometer are sent to Earth, covering the approach, the impact and its aftermath. The effects of the collision with the comet will also be observable from certain locations on Earth and, in some cases, with smaller telescopes. The data is analyzed and combined with that of other NASA and international comet missions. Results from these missions will lead to a better understanding of both the solar system's formation and implications of comets colliding with Earth.
The Deep Impact Mission is at:
Beyond the Solar System
We now know that our Sun is not the only star to support a system of planets. While we have only discovered giant gas planets orbiting other stars, the possibility finding of another Earth-like planet nearby is what drives NASA's Kepler Mission. In October 2007, scientists hope to launch a probe into an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, where it will survey our galactic neighborhood for planets orbiting other stars.
Find out more about extrasolar planets at:
To the Moon and Then On to Mars
The European Space Agency has its sights on placing a human on Mars by 2030, with a rest stop on the Moon in the intervening years. NASA's objectives are very similar. Between the two agencies, there are a host of concerns that need to be addressed before mission planning can begin for the first human interplanetary flight.
A round trip to Mars could take as long as two years. A lot can happen to a person in that amount of time. What will the astronauts eat? What do they do if they catch a cold? Can we protect the astronauts from the radiation? How will the long-term weightlessness affect their bodies?
Both agencies agree that one of the next steps in our journey to the Red Planet is a sample return. You can learn more about this next step at:
To learn more about the European Space Agency's plans for Mars, check out:
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