Earlier this week, the internet was sent abuzz when President Joe Biden unveiled the very first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), including the deepest, sharpest infrared picture of the universe ever captured.
Now, more images have emerged, revealing details of our stars, galaxies, and the universe we’ve never seen before. In fact, the scientists themselves were so moved by the snapshots, they said they “nearly broke” from emotion.
When compared side-by-side with earlier pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope—launched into orbit in 1990—it becomes clear why the space agency spent a whopping US$10 billion on the new observatory.
The images taken by the JWST are higher-definition, crisper, and more vibrant; and it reveals more. For example, Hubble’s shot of the Southern Ring Nebula shows just one light at its center, while the newer picture clearly shows two stars.
According to Insider, the difference boils down to JWST’s use of different wavelengths of infrared light to capture its images, allowing it to better display the structure of the nebula and the “missing” star scientists were certain existed.
One of the most striking pictures unveiled was that of the Carina Nebula: NGC 3324, which as per Big Think, is a young star-forming region known among researchers as the “Cosmic Cliffs.”
In Hubble’s image, the vague outline of the range can be seen, dotted with bright stars, and a blue vapor appearing to be “rising” above. Whereas, in the latest picture of the region by JWST, one can see hundreds more stars, with the crevices of the “cliffs” in clear view.
“When I see an image like this, I can’t help but think about scale,” mused Amber Straughn, a NASA astrophysicist on the JWST team, while presenting the images on a livestream.
“Every dot of light we see here is an individual star, not unlike our sun, and many of these likely also have planets. And it just reminds me that our sun and our planet, and ultimately us, were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here.”
In less than 10 years, the International Space Station—the site of many an interstellar marvel—will become a relic in Earthling’s minds, vanishing like it never existed. NASA plans to decommission the orbital outpost at the end of 2030 and actualize the ISS’s retirement by crashing it into the Pacific Ocean in January 2031.
The space station, which made its maiden launch in 1998 and was first occupied by humans in 2000, is destined to make its descent home alone—with no humans on board—before sharply plunging into a very remote area often dubbed the “spacecraft cemetery,” reports Gizmodo.
Point Nemo, as the crash zone is called, is 1,670 miles away from the closest inhabited area.
Although a 2030 date is expected, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, warns the news outlet that this deadline could arrive earlier, since NASA hasn’t disclosed if partnering space forces, like the one in Russia, would agree to back the ISS through 2030.
Be that as it may, with the outpost’s retirement, NASA will hand over the keys of space exploration efforts to a private sector, whose activities will continue to be supported by the space agency.
“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” explains Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters. Combined with the resources of private entities, NASA will continue “sharing our lessons learned and operations experience… to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space.”
The ISS was, in actual fact, scheduled to retire in 2024, but the Biden-Harris administration quietly prolonged its operations to last through 2030. It is believed that this will be the last extension.
As it approaches its last legs, the ISS is reported by NASA to be “busier than ever” and entering its “most productive decade,” as well as paving way for more diversity in space exploration roles.
“Today’s youth are tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, and researchers,” notes the space agency. “It is thus crucial to our nation and NASA’s efforts to maintain the interest and curiosity of today’s students so they continue to be inspired by and participate in the wide scope of space exploration roles.”
The car-sized Perseverance, the most advanced robot ever sent to the Red Planet, aced its “seven minutes of terror” touchdown this afternoon (Feb. 18), alighting gently on an ancient lakebed inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater shortly before 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT).
After a series of instrument and hardware checkouts, Perseverance will start doing what it crossed interplanetary space to do: hunt for signs of ancient Mars life, collect and cache rock samples for future return to Earth and demonstrate some shiny new exploration technologies, among other things.
“I don’t think we’ve had a mission that is going to contribute so much to both science and technology,” NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk told Space.com earlier this week . “It’s going to be truly amazing.”
Perseverance, the heart of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, lifted off from Florida’s Space Coast atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on July 30, 2020.
That was about halfway through Perseverance’s month-long launch window, which closed in mid-August. Such windows come along just once every 26 months for Mars missions, so NASA was determined to get the rover off the ground on time — a challenging task made even tougher by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced a rethink of assembly and testing protocols and made it harder for the team to travel.
“In March and early April, we weren’t sure we were going to be able to make it,” Jurczyk said. (Back then, the NASA chief was Jim Bridenstine, and Jurczyk led the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.)
The rover’s name is a testament to the spirit that got the mission off the ground and on its way to Mars, agency officials have said.
“Perseverance is a strong word,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in March 2020 during the rover’s naming ceremony. “It’s about making progress despite obstacles.”
Like NASA’s other Mars rovers, Perseverance got its name via a nationwide student competition. The winning moniker was submitted by Alex Mather, at the time a seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia.
The six-wheeled Perseverance is modeled heavily after its predecessor, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which touched down inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater in August 2012 and is still going strong today.
Perseverance is a few inches longer than Curiosity and, with a weight of 2,260 lbs. (1,025 kilograms), nearly 300 lbs. (136 kg) heavier. Some of their scientific instruments are also quite different. But the two rovers share the same basic body plan and the same type of nuclear power source, and they used the same strategy to land safely on the Red Planet.
That strategy, which Curiosity pioneered, sounds like something out of science fiction. Perseverance hit the Martian atmosphere at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph) and deployed a 70.5-foot-wide (20.5 meters) parachute a few minutes later, while still traveling faster than the speed of sound.
But Mars’ air is just 1% as thick as that of Earth, so a chute couldn’t slow the rover down enough for a safe landing. Mars 2020 therefore employed a rocket-powered sky crane, which lowered the Mars car to the red dirt on cables, then flew off to crash-land intentionally a safe distance away.
NASA received word that Perseverance had gotten down safely at 3:55 p.m. EST (2055 GMT) today, about 11 minutes after the landing actually took place. (It currently takes that long for signals to travel from the Red Planet to Earth.) The news prompted wild celebrations at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the Mars 2020 mission.
There was doubtless a decent dose of relief mixed in with the excitement, for success today was far from guaranteed. Over the decades, only about half of Mars surface missions have touched down safely. And Perseverance’s landing site on Jezero’s floor, which features hazards such as cliffs, sand dunes and boulder fields, was the toughest ever targeted by a Mars mission, NASA officials have said.
Indeed, this dangerous terrain required Perseverance to make the most precise Red Planet touchdown ever. The rover’s landing ellipse was just 4.8 miles long by 4.1 miles wide (7.7 by 6.6 kilometers), compared to 4 miles by 12 miles (7 by 12 km) for Curiosity.
Perseverance hit that target today with the aid of two new entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies that Curiosity didn’t have at its disposal. One, called “range trigger,” allowed the mission to deploy its supersonic parachute at just the right moment. The other, “terrain-relative navigation,” enabled Perseverance’s sky crane to assess the Jezero landscape and navigate autonomously around potential hazards during the descent.
These landing technologies worked exactly as planned, guiding Perseverance to a picture-perfect touchdown on a safe, flat part of Jezero’s floor, mission team members said during a post-landing news conference this afternoon.
And the rover seems to have made it through EDL in fine shape. Perseverance has already beamed home its first images of its new surroundings, and initial health checks revealed no causes for concern.
“The power system looks good,” Mars 2020 deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper, also of JPL, said during today’s briefing. “The batteries are charged at 95%, and everything looks great.”
Curiosity is a habitability-assessing mission, and that rover has found plenty of evidence that Gale Crater could have supported Earth-like life billions of years ago. Perseverance will take the next step, actively searching for signs of past organisms in the first life hunt conducted on the Martian surface since NASA’s twin Viking landers ceased operations in the early 1980s. (The Vikings looked for present-day Mars life, however, whereas Perseverance is focused on the distant past.)
Jezero is a great place to do such work, mission team members have said. The crater, which lies about 18 degrees north of the Martian equator, hosted a lake the size of Lake Tahoe long ago and also sports an ancient river delta. In addition, Mars orbiters have spied on Jezero’s floor clay minerals, which form in the presence of liquid water.
Perseverance will scrutinize Martian dirt and rock with a variety of high-tech science gear, including multiple spectrometers, high-resolution cameras and ground-penetrating radar. One of the rover’s seven instruments, called SuperCam, will zap rocks with a laser and gauge the composition of the resulting vapor.
Such observations could potentially identify a convincing sign of ancient Mars life — perhaps something akin to stromatolites, structures created here on Earth by dirt-trapping microbial mats. But that’s a tall order for a lonely robot far from home. A positive ID of Martian life, if it ever existed, will likely require analyses by advanced equipment in laboratories here on Earth, NASA officials have said. And Mars 2020 aims to help make that happen.
Using the drill at the end of its long robotic arm, Perseverance will collect about 40 samples from especially promising sites and seal them inside special tubes. This material will then be brought back to Earth by a joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign, perhaps as early as 2031.
Once here, the samples will be studied in countless ways by hundreds of scientists for decades to come. Researchers are still poring over the moon rocks hauled home by NASA’s Apollo astronauts half a century ago, after all, and that material has no serious astrobiological potential.
“Mars sample return is the planetary science endeavor of our generation,” Bobby Braun, director of solar system exploration at JPL, said during a pre-landing news conference yesterday (Feb. 17).
“It’s ambitious. It’s challenging. It’s a scientifically compelling goal that, over decades, we have been working toward,” Braun said. “And it’s right there. It’s just within our reach.”
Mars 2020 will also pave the way for more ambitious exploration of the Red Planet in the future, if all goes according to plan.
For example, one of Perseverance’s instruments, called MOXIE (“Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment”), is designed to generate oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere, which is 95% carbon dioxide by volume. Such equipment, if scaled up, could help humanity get a foothold on Mars down the road, NASA officials have said. (“ISRU,” by the way, is short for “in situ resource utilization,” a fancy term for living off the land.)
And attached to Perseverance’s belly is a 4-lb. (1.8 kg) helicopter named Ingenuity, which will attempt to become the first rotorcraft ever to fly in the skies of a world beyond Earth. If Ingenuity succeeds, helicopters could soon become an important part of the Mars-exploration toolkit.
“We could put sensors on them and use them as science platforms, and also as scouts,” Jurczyk said. Aerial reconnaissance by rotorcraft could allow rovers to “drive more autonomously, and drive faster and longer on the surface,” he added.
What inspired you to consider feeding one million people on Mars?
I’ve been working on a lot of projects related to space resources, so using local materials on the moon or Mars to support exploration and development of space. If you think about the consumables you would need for humans, you’re looking at oxygen, water, construction material and food. And what we realized is that the food is one of the most challenging things to produce on the surface of Mars and that it’s going to take a lot of processing. In our opinion, people really weren’t thinking big enough.
How did you come up with numbers—like number of people and caloric intake—for the study?
The million people, that’s kind of an arbitrary figure based on some stuff that Elon Musk has talked about for his aspirational goals, so we just chose that as a baseline. For the specific numbers in the study, we took a lot from data on Earth. For example, we looked at how many calories the average person eats per day and then scaled that based on a person’s age and activity level. In this computer model, we actually represent a population of people, so we had a 50/50 mix of males and females and we had an age structure. Of course, children consume a lot less calories than older people. That’s all taken into account in our modeling.
How did you determine which food sources would be well-suited for life on Mars?
We looked at this in a very general way. We thought, okay, let’s start from plants, because that’s what most people assumed in the past when they thought about what people would be eating on space missions. And let’s go a little bit beyond that to some protein sources. So, we looked at what’s being done on Earth and we honed in on insect-based foods that turned out to be very efficient for Mars, as well as what’s called cellular agriculture. That’s this idea of growing meat from cells in these large bioreactors. It’s something that’s actually coming a lot sooner than people think on Earth, and it’s very well-adapted for producing food in space.
How does cellular agriculture work?
The way it works is that you take cells from an animal—you can really use any animal, but people are starting with chickens, cows, the familiar things. You extract those cells and then you basically grow them in a nutrient solution. This could be done in a big, stainless steel tank and it almost would look more like brewing beer than a traditional farm. What people are really working on now is to try to get the texture right by building up those cells in some kind of scaffold that gives you the texture of different meats. But the whole point is it’s a much more sustainable way of producing animal protein, and it’s much more ethical because it doesn’t involve raising animals in questionable conditions.
Could you elaborate a bit more on the insect protein?
In North America and in Europe, it’s not really part of our culture or diet. But if you look more broadly, I think something like 2 billion people eat insects as part of their diet on a regular basis. It turns out to be a very good source of protein and again, it’s much more sustainable. It doesn’t require a lot of land or a lot of water compared to factory farming practices. Of course, there is a little bit of a gross factor. But people can, for example, grind up crickets into flour and then put them into cookies or chips or things like that, so you can hide them and get away from just chomping down on whole insects.
What kind of fruits or vegetables would be on the menu?
If you look at what’s being done in space right now, the astronauts have a little garden where they’re able to grow things like lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. Of course, those foods are valuable for things like vitamins and the psychological benefit of being able to grow your own vegetables. But you’re not going to be able to feed a large population on those very low-calorie vegetables, so you’re really going to have to look at things like corn, wheat and soy that are dense enough in calories to support a growing population.
What kinds of technologies did you find were best suited for food production on Mars?
One of the important things is that you would want your food production to be as automated as possible because that would free up people’s time to do more important things. A lot of companies are working on that on Earth, trying to integrate robots into farming and insect production. I think the other thing that’s going to be important is genetic modification, particularly with the plant species, to find ways to improve strains of crops and make them more resilient to grow in a harsh environment on Mars. Right now, the most promising thing would be something like CRISPR, which has kind of taken over the biology world. Already, there’s been a few studies that have used CRISPR to rapidly modify the genomes of specific plant species. So, I think that in particular has the most promise for making Mars-specific strains of crops.
What are some other challenges posed by the conditions on Mars?
One thing we looked at was whether it makes sense to grow plants in greenhouses on the surface. Whenever you see an artist sketch of a Mars base, you always see greenhouses everywhere. But what we found is that you really just don’t get enough sunlight at the surface of Mars because it’s farther away from the sun. Your incident sunlight is basically what you would get in Alaska, and there’s a reason why we don’t grow corn and wheat in Alaska. They’re growing at more southern latitudes. So, it turns out that something like a greenhouse might actually not make sense on Mars. You might be better off growing the plants and producing other foods in tunnels underground, for example.
Where would the water come from?
We have a pretty good handle on where the water is on Mars. It’s mostly locked up as ice underground and it’s also found in certain minerals. For things like clays and salts, where the water is actually embedded in the mineral structure, you could heat those up and evaporate the water off. Once you extract that water, it’s pretty easy to recycle water fairly efficiently. I think on the space station, something like 97 percent of the water is recaptured and reused. It’s obviously an engineering challenge to mine that water in the first place, but then once you have a reservoir built up, you should be able to recycle it fairly efficiently in this closed ecosystem that you construct.
Based on the results of the study, would you advocate for a human settlement on Mars?
Yes, and I think if we look at what particularly SpaceX is doing, they’re already building the ships that are going to take cargo and then people to Mars. We’re already kind of set down that path, and the question is going to be: who goes? Is this going to be space agencies? Is it going to be tourists? And how is a settlement or a city going to build up? But I think it is definitely something that’s feasible in the near term.
“I 3d printed two wrenches. One for destroying and the other for a birthday present.” – ScienceMadeFunner
We are definitely going to need 3D Printers for whenever we settle on Mars. You can print a tool/machine/kit and later recycle/repurpose it into something else! Saves waste, delivery time, and money involved in the conquest of space.