Even for an agency that put the first human on the moon, designed and flew the first reusable spacecraft and has extended our land-based and extraterrestrial space exploration tools, and subsequent knowledge of the universe, in myriad ways, NASA has put together a pretty solid winning streak recently.
On Monday evening, the world had a live, front-row seat for the pinnacle moment of a NASA operation that sent a spacecraft 7 million miles to strike a bull’s-eye on an asteroid less than 600 feet in diameter. Oh, and the spaceship was traveling at 14,000 mph when it hit that moving target and was being guided, at the time, by an onboard autonomous navigation system.
But that’s just the most recent of NASA’s headline-grabbing benchmarks. Here’s a quick look at what the 64-year-old U.S. space agency has been up to lately:
James Webb Space Telescope expanding knowledge and wonder
In July, NASA shared the debut pictures captured by the world’s most advanced space observation platform, the James Webb Space Telescope, the first in a slew of jaw-dropping images that are serving to inspire awe, solve long-running mysteries and create entirely new paths of inquiry about the deepest reaches of the universe.
President Joe Biden hosted a grand unveiling of Webb’s first images at the White House in early July and the pics did not disappoint. One image included a capture of a field of stars and galaxies, including faint recordings of galaxies as much as 13 billion light-years away.
Since then, Webb has streamed the sharpest images ever created of planets in our own solar system as well as dramatic, distant bodies with names as intriguing as their appearances like Cartwheel Galaxy, Tarantula Nebula and the Phantom Galaxy.
Perseverance Rover may be holding the first evidence of alien life
The Mars Perseverance Rover has been on the Red Plant for over a year-and-a-half but it recently hit the mother lode when it comes to gathering evidence that may lead to a conclusive answer about the existence of life on other planets.
At a NASA press briefing earlier this month, Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of the California Institute of Technology, said rocks currently under investigation in Mars’ Jezero Crater “have the highest concentration of organic matter that we’ve yet found on the mission. And of course, organic molecules are the building blocks of life.”
But Farley also stressed that organic compounds and other potential signs of past organic life, so-called biosignatures, can come from other sources and are not, in themselves, definitive of past Martian life.
“Potential biosignatures is something that may have been produced by life but also could have been prod in the absence of life,” Farley said. “The key point about a potential biosignature is it compels further investigation to draw a conclusion.”
And Perseverance is not only picking up and storing Martian samples that may reveal alien life, it also has a future date with another NASA mission that is aiming to land on Mars, retrieve the samples, and return them to earth.
“These rocks are exactly the kind of rocks we came to investigate both with the rover and its scientific instruments and to bring back to earth so they can be studied in terrestrial laboratories,” Farley said.
DART mission scores direct hit, 7 million miles away
On Monday evening, NASA successfully crashed a spacecraft into a distant asteroid to see if it can move the rock, a method that will come in handy should a planet-killing asteroid ever come hurtling toward earth.
NASA says this particular asteroid is millions of miles away and was not a threat to earth before the crash, nor will it be a hazard following impact.
Thanks to a camera on board the spaceship, the lead-up to the collision was live-streamed back to earth. Those logged onto NASA’s YouTube channel saw the Dimorphos asteroid slowly fill the frame in the minutes before impact when the image screen froze and moments later mission engineers confirmed a direct hit.
Sponsored by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is a $325 million project that successfully crashed a 1,260-pound spacecraft traveling at 14,000 mph into Dimorphos, an asteroid that’s 525 feet in diameter and 7 million miles from earth.
Dimorphos is a moonlet asteroid, orbiting a larger asteroid named Didymos, which is about a half-mile in diameter. Mission officials have stressed that the binary system “is not on a path to collide with earth and therefore poses no actual threat to the planet” but is the “perfect testing ground” to see if an asteroid’s natural path can be altered via a high-velocity impact.
While DART was recording video right up to the moment of its own demise, plenty of other “eyes” were on the collision, including a slew of earth-bound telescopes as well as a number of spaced-based observers.
NASA says the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes were turned toward the Didymos system for the event, as was the Lucy space probe. DART was also carrying a small cube satellite designed and built by the Italian Space Agency that it launched about two weeks ago on its way to the target. The LICIACube had the closest third-party view of the crash from its position at 55 kilometers, around 34 miles, from Dimorphos at the time of impact, according to NASA.
NASA said the expectation is that DART’s impact on Dimorphos changed the asteroid’s speed by 1% or so, but it could take weeks or even months to determine the exact level of disruption.
While this may seem like a minor bump, the ability to create even a minute change in an asteroid or comet’s trajectory toward earth, with sufficient lead time, could create the difference between a future near-miss or direct hit.
Artemis missions aiming for the moon and beyond
First technical issues, then weather, have plagued NASA’s attempts to launch the historic Artemis I moon mission but once on track, the multiphase effort aims to put humans back on the moon for the first time in over 50 years, an initial step toward a much loftier goal.
The first two tries at launching the massive Space Launch System rocket were scrubbed due to issues with fueling and rocket engine prep processes. This week, a Tuesday launch attempt was canceled thanks to roiled Florida weather patterns driven by incoming Hurricane Ian. The potential for catastrophic weather conditions have forced NASA to move the SLS rocket off its Cape Canaveral launch pad, where it’s been poised since late August, and back into the protection of the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building. NASA has not yet commented on a potential date for the next launch try.
The uncrewed Artemis I mission is just the first in a three-phase program aiming to put astronauts back on the surface of the moon for the first time since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025. Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.