When an arm of government has a very strong year, most people are unconcerned. What does it mean when the Department of Commerce is having a good time? What makes the people in the Office of Management and Budget pop the Champagne corks? But NASA isn’t like that when your job is to construct rockets, light the fuse, and launch machines and beings into space, people pay attention to how things happen.
As a result, as NASA closes out in 2021, both within and outside the agency are celebrating one of the most successful years for space since the 1960s and 1970s, when it appeared NASA achieved nearly nothing but triumph.
NASA Quietly Had a Stellar Year
The media hasn’t always highlighted all of the most notable achievements, thanks in part to the billionaire boys’ club of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson’s success in getting their own space hardware off the ground in 2021. Nonetheless, NASA’s achievements have been visible.
Here are just a few of the issues NASA has raised in the last year:
The James Webb Space Telescope
Forget about the dreaded T-minus 10-second countdown. It was the culmination of 25 years of work and no less than $9.5 billion in R&D and construction expenditures when the engines of the Ariane V rocket carrying the James Webb Orbit Telescope to space fired up at 7:20 a.m. ET on Dec. 25. The cosmic reward, however, will be orders of magnitude more than the terrestrial investment if the Webb operates as projected.
The primary mirror of the telescope is a complicated 18-segment assemblage of gold and beryllium hexagons that is 6.5 m (21.3 ft) wide, compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s single-piece, circular design that measures 2.4 m (7.9 ft). The new method was necessary by Web’squite different kinds of jobs. Webb is meant to see in the infrared, whereas Hubble observes in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths.
This is significant because infrared is the wavelength at which the earliest signals from the universe’s deepest regions reach us. The further a signal source is from us, the longer it takes for the light to reach us, thus the picture we see is not of the star or other formation as it looks now, but as it looked long ago.
Hubble can look back roughly 13.4 billion years, or 400 million years after the Big Bang when the universe started. Webb will be able to observe 200 million years back in time, to the period when the first stars began to shine and galaxies began to form. That has always been a locked door to cosmic history for us. NASA opened it on Christmas Day.
The Perseverance Rover and the Ingenuity Helicopter
Landing metal on Mars has historically been one of the most difficult problems a space agency can face, with a lengthy history of near misses, harsh crashes, and repeated failures on missions to the Red Planet however, NASA made history on February 18, 2021, when the Perseverance rover arrived at Jezero crater, towing the small drone-sized Ingenuity helicopter behind it.
Jezero crater used to be Jezero lake, which was brimming with water and supplied by an inflowing river.
As a result, it’s considered a good place to seek indications of ancient—or perhaps current—life perseverance has driven 2.83 kilometres (1.76 miles) so far, drilling rocks, analysing geologic formations, and collecting soil samples, which it is packaging into titanium tubes that will be returned to Earth by a future mission.
Meanwhile, the Ingenuity helicopter has just completed its 17th flight, greatly beyond the five it was supposed to fly at the start of the mission as a basic proof of concept that an aircraft could function on another planet. To yet, the little chopper has flown for 30 minutes and 48 seconds, covering a total distance of 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles), flying as high as 12 metres (40 feet), and reaching speeds of 16 kilometres per hour (10 mph).
Nobody knows how long Ingenuity will continue, and nobody knows how long Perseverance will last. Consider the year 2012. Curiosity, Perseverance’s sister rover, arrived in Gale Crater on Mars at the same time. Curiosity is still chugging after more than 3,300 Martian sols, or days (about the same length as an Earth day).
Perseverance, if all goes according to plan, may achieve the same.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) NASA
Don’t Look Up, an unlikely comedic narrative about a comet on a planet-killing collision path with Earth is generating a lot of buzzes this season the film aims for dark laughter, and it succeeds, but there’s nothing amusing about the harsh existential reality that we live in a shooting gallery of a solar system, with a lot of lethal weaponry out there that might wipe us out as certainly as a cosmic crack 65 million years ago did the dinosaurs.
On Nov. 21, 2021, NASA took action, launching the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft to investigate whether it was feasible to divert an asteroid or comet that was heading straight for our planet before it reached us.
The asteroid Didymos, a 780 m (2,559 ft) rock that rounds the sun from just beyond our planet’s orbit to just outside that of Mars, is the spacecraft’s target. Didymos is encircled by Dimorphos, a 160 m (525 ft.) moonlet. When DART arrives in the Didymos system, it will purposefully collide with Dimorphos, with scientists measuring the degree to which the moonlet’s orbit changes in speed and direction.
If the mission succeeds in drastically altering Dimorphos‘ trajectory, it will serve as a first, crucial test of what might one day become a powerful planetary defence system. And, as the dinosaurs have shown, that day could not come soon enough.
The Journeys of Lucy NASA
Not every asteroid is hostile to Earth. Indeed, the vast majority are innocuous, and a few are priceless—4 billion-year-old relics of the primordial stuff that gave birth to the solar system you may open a geological gateway through time by getting up close to those rocks Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two swarms of rocks—one that precedes Jupiter in its orbit around the sun and the other that follows it—are frozen-in-time leftovers of the outer planets’ building components.
There are about 4,800 Trojan asteroids in total, and on Oct. 16, 2021, NASA launched a spacecraft named Lucy (after the primordial Australopithecus fossil, which represents one of humanity’s oldest ancestors) that will explore at least seven of them—plus one asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter—marking the largest number of objects in independent orbits around the sun ever discovered by a single spacecraft.
Lucy’s quest will take 12 years to accomplish since it will be lengthy and winding. The spacecraft will perform frequent flybys of Earth as it circles the sun for gravity aids and trajectory adjustments that will catapult it first to the leading swarm of Trojans, then to the following one.
The 821 kg (1,810 lb) spacecraft is equipped with a set of equipment that will enable it to examine the asteroids‘ surface geology, colour and chemical composition, densities and interiors, as well as any rings or moonlets that may orbit the primary bodies. Lucy should expose any mysteries that are hidden in the rocks.