NASA put the first man on the moon, built an international space station, made the Hubble Space Telescope (which still gives us gorgeous shots of the universe), yadda yadda. Those are old news, right? But then, as I’ve recently been thinking about it, I realize the people at NASA just never seem to run out of surprises throughout the decades. They went surprisingly sustainable, announcing the launch of a recycled supply rocket. They went surprisingly cute, making their satellites capture pictures of more than a million penguins. They even have a (non-surprisingly) fantastic podcast.
Another one is coming from NASA in a tiny gift box. A four-pound autonomous space helicopter will be launched alongside their 2020 rover mission to Mars. And the experimental device is only the size of a softball!
Traveling at the speed of light, it’ll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird’s-eye view of the planet.
NASA made the tiny space helicopter carry batteries and other hardware that were customized to be as light as possible. And aside from being incredibly light, the device also needs to have incredibly fast mechanisms or functions in order to survive the conditions in Mars.
[T]he Martian atmosphere is practically non-existent. The air pressure at the planet’s surface is lower than it is at a helicopter’s maximum altitude when flying above Earth. In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it’s two blades ten times faster — 3,000 times per minute — than it would on Earth[.]
Once the new rover and its passenger — the tiny space helicopter — reach Mars in 2021, they will be scanning for signs of life, identifying hazards for future astronauts, and assisting other ground-based rovers in ongoing geology research.
By then, all of us should prepare for more Martian surprises in store. Again, care of NASA’s coolness.
Holding on to its promise of saving the world, NASA has a lot to prove to the public. Now may be a good time to breathe a sigh of relief, as the space agency successfully communicated with a faraway spacecraft. 13 billion miles away, to be exact.
Last week, ground controllers sent commands to fire backup thrusters on Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft. The thrusters had been idle for 37 years, since Voyager 1 flew past Saturn.
Voyager 1 then pinged a signal back to the Jet Propulsion Lab, received after a 19-hour wait. At 40-years-old, the senior spacecraft is the only one floating outside of our own solar system. A team at NASA conducted a thorough study of its original software, which (obviously) remained mostly intact.
“The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all,” he said in a statement.
If further testing proves successful, the decrepit Voyager 1 may see extra years of potential hovering.
Since the discovery of four Earth-sized planets along Tau Ceti, Mars-like community simulations are being set in motion. While space studies are progressing, new intergalactic breakthroughs may be calling for NASA to pick up the pace. The planet may not look much like Earth, but it appears to be the most potentially habitable — and it’s only 11 lightyears away.
“Those flares can sterilize the atmosphere of the planet,” said Xavier Bonfils of the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in Grenoble, France… “Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of the neighborhood.”
The planet’s mother star, Ross 128, is significantly calmer than most others, and minimally eruptive. Though astronomers have only managed to observe the planet with a telescope, the facts don’t lie. The planet is warm enough to sustain liquid water, and has since stabilized in its billions of years of existence.
The star may have been more turbulent in its youth. But even if solar flares billions of years ago stripped away the planet’s atmosphere, it could have been replenished by gases emanating from the planet’s interior.
Whatever the case, I’m glad to know that if our own planet bites the dust, there are others to hold future generations.
NASA couldn’t have sought planetary protection officers at a better time because we may be facing life in space. A team of astronomers has detected four Earth-sized planets orbiting a nearby sun-like star. Tau Ceti is close enough to Earth that it’s visible to the naked eye.
These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around nearby sun-like stars. Two of them are super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star, meaning they could support liquid surface water.
Researchers discovered the planets using a sensitive movement-detection technique. Two of the planets are potentially habitable, though prone to disruption by asteroids and comets. How these planets were studied is anything but simple.
“We are slowly learning to tell the difference between wobbles caused by planets and those caused by stellar active surface. This enabled us to essentially verify the existence of the two outer, potentially habitable planets in the system.”
We may not be migrating to the four planets anytime soon, but due to tau Ceti’s similarity to the sun, it could eventually be possible.