NASA Quietly Had a Stellar Year

Most people don’t notice when a branch of government has a very good year. How do you define high times in the Department of Commerce Why do they pop Champagne corks at the Office of Management and Budget NASA is a different story. When your job is to build rockets, light the fuse and send machines and humans into space, folks tend to notice if things go well—or don’t.

NASA is closing out 2021. NASA staff and others are commemorating what was easily one of NASA’s most successful years since the 1970s and 1960s. It used to seem that NASA could do almost anything but succeed. The media haven’t always touted all of the most noteworthy accomplishments—due at least partly to the headline-grabbing 2021 that the billionaire boys’ club of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have had getting their own space hardware off the ground. But NASA’s accomplishments have been there all the same.
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These are only a few of the NASA points that were added to the Board this year.

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
NASA/Chris GunnJames Webb Space Telescope in a clean space before its launch

The familiar 10-second T-minus countdown is not necessary. When the engines lit on the Ariane V rocket carrying the James Webb Space Telescope to space at 7:20 AM ET on the morning of Dec. 25, it was the culmination of 25 years of effort and no less than $9.5 billion in R&D and construction costs. If the Webb is successful, however, it will pay off orders of magnitude more than terrestrial expenses.

The telescope’s main mirror is a complex, 18-segment assemblage of gold and beryllium hexagons, measuring 6.5 m (21.3 ft) across, compared to the Hubble Space telescope’s smaller—2.4 m (7.9 ft)—single-piece, circular design. Webb is doing a very different type of work, so the new approach was necessary. Hubble is able to see ultraviolet and visible wavelengths. Webb, however, can only see in infrared.

This is an important distinction, as infrared wavelength is where the oldest signals come from the most distant regions of the universe. Because light travels longer to us the further away it is from a source of signal, it is possible that the image we view today isn’t the same star or formation it was long ago. Hubble can see about 13.4 billion years into the past—just 400 million years after the Big Bang that began the universe. Webb will be able to see an additional 200 million years back—to the time when the first stars were flickering on and the first galaxies were forming. It is the only way to see cosmic history as it was before. NASA made it possible to open the door on Christmas.

The Perseverance Rover, and the Ingenuity Helicopter

NASA/JPL-CaltechThe Perseverance rover is lowered to the surface of Mars on Feb. 18 in image captured by the spacecraft’s descent stage.

With a long history of space missions to Mars littered by near misses and hard crashes, landing metal on Mars is one of the most difficult challenges that a space agency has ever faced. NASA made history when Perseverance, a small drone-sized rover, landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. Jezero crater used to be Jezero Lake, which was once full of water, and it was fed by an inflowing River. For that reason, it is seen as a prime site to look for signs of ancient—or even extant—life.

So far, Perseverance has driven 2.83 km (1.76 mi)—which counts as a lot, given the slow and painstaking way commands must be pre-written and loaded into the rover’s memory before it can move so much as an inch—drilling rocks, investigating geologic formations, and gathering samples of soil, which it is packing into titanium tubes that will be brought back to Earth by a future mission.

The Ingenuity helicopter, meantime, has just completed its 17th flight—far more than the original five it was scheduled to fly early in the mission as a mere proof of principle that an aircraft could operate on another planet. The little helicopter has been airborne for 30 minutes, 48 seconds, and covered a distance of 3.5km (2.2 miles). It also flew as high as 40 feet (12 m) and at speeds up to 16 km/h (10mph).

It is impossible to predict how long Ingenuity and Perseverance will survive. You can go back all the way to 2012! That’s when Perseverance’s sister rover, Curiosity, landed in Mars’s Gale Crater. Curiosity continues to chugging after more than 3300 Martian sols (or days), which is roughly the same duration as an Earth-day. You can persevere if everything goes according plan.

Double Asteroid Redirection Test: (DART).

Illustration of the DART spacecraft with the Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) extended.
NASAIllustration of DART Spacecraft extended with Roll Out Solar Arrays

Hollywood has made a big deal of this season’s Oscars. Don’t Look UpThis is a hilarious comic about a comet in a collision with Earth that kills planets. The movie plays for dark laughs—and earns them—but there is nothing remotely funny about the hard existential fact that we live in a shooting gallery of a solar system, and there is a lot of deadly ordnance out there that could spell the end of us as surely as a cosmic crack-up 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs.

NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft (DART), on November 21, 2021 to try to intercept an asteroid before it could reach Earth. The spacecraft’s target is the asteroid Didymos—which poses no threat to Earth—a 780 m (2,559 ft) rock that circles the sun from just outside our planet’s orbit to just outside of Mars’s. Didymos, itself, is circling a moonlet of 160 m (525 feet) named Dimorphos. When DART reaches the Didymos system, it will deliberately crash into Dimorphos, and astronomers will then measure the degree to which the speed and direction of the moonlet’s orbit changes. Should the mission succeed in changing Dimorphos’s path significantly, it will represent a first, critical test of what could one day become a robust planetary defense system. That day may not come soon, just ask the dinosaurs.

The Journeys of Lucy

A diagram of Lucy's flight path.
Southwest Research InstituteA diagram of Lucy’s flight path.

Some asteroid wish Earth harm, but not all. Indeed most are harmless and some are priceless—4 billion year old artifacts of the primordial material that created the solar system. You can get up close and personal with these rocks, which will allow you to open a portal into time. Some of the most intriguing of these cosmic relics are Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two swarms of rocks—one of which precedes Jupiter in its orbit around the sun and one of which trails it—which are locked-in-time remains of the building blocks of the outer planets.

There are a total of about 4,800 Trojan asteroids, and on Oct. 16, 2021, NASA launched a spacecraft named Lucy (after the primordial Australopithecus fossil that 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 greatest number of objects in independent orbits around the sun ever reconnoitered by a single spacecraft.

Lucy’s mission will be long and circuitous, taking 12 years to complete. While the spacecraft is orbiting the sun it will fly by Earth periodically for gravity assistance and trajectory corrections. This will allow it to slingshot first to the lead swarm and then to its trailing counterpart. This spacecraft weighs 821 kilograms (1,810kg) and has a range of instruments. It will be able to examine multiple aspects of asteroids including their surface geology and color. Lucy must reveal any secrets in rocks.

Super Rocket ready to fly

This NASA photo released on January 6, 2020 shows NASAs powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will send astronauts a quarter million miles from Earth to lunar orbit at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Jude Guidry—NASA/AFP via Getty ImagesNASA released this photo on January 6, 2020. This NASA photo shows NASA’s latest rocket, the Space Launch System, which will launch astronauts 25 million miles to the Moon at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.

When plans for NASA’s newest, biggest moon rocket were first released, Shrek 2Eminem was the top box-office performer, while Eminem was at the top of the charts. The first iPhone had been three years away. It was early 2004, and then-President George W. Bush announced plans to build a 21st century version of the Saturn V moon rocket—called the Ares V—that would return Americans to the moon by 2014. It was an exciting plan but, like so much else in NASA’s start-stop return to the lunar surface, a doomed one. Barack Obama was the one to scrap the rocket in 2010. He cited missed deadlines as well as cost overruns. But under pressure from Congress, Ares V was revived with a new name—the Space Launch System (SLS)—which would have its first flight by 2016.

The promised goals were not met, and the year ended. The SLS has finally been launched. In preparation for the March test flight, the 98m (322-ft.) high, rocket was finally assembled at Kennedy Space Center in the Vehicle Assembly Building. The vehicle’s propulsion system uses proven legacy hardware—four space shuttle main engines, and two shuttle-era solid rocket boosters. When all six engines are lit, they will produce a staggering 4 million kg (8.8 million lbs) of thrust, easily exceeding the Saturn V’s 3.4 million kg (7.5 million lbs), making SLS the most powerful rocket ever launched. The first mission, called Artemis 1, will fly uncrewed around the far side moon. Artemis 2 will then follow, this time with astronauts. Artemis 3 could land on the Moon as soon as 2025. SLS has finally arrived after 17 years of preparation and planning.

There were other triumphs in NASA’s big year as well—quieter ones perhaps, but triumphs all the same: In December, the space agency’s Parker Solar Probe became the first spacecraft to touch the corona of the sun; in May, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft began its journey back to Earth, bringing home samples from the asteroid Bennu; throughout 2021, the Juno spacecraft continued its years-long study of Jupiter, which it began orbiting in 2016. The rich and powerful like Musk, Branson, and Bezos are going to continue to assert their claim in space and attract media attention. But NASA, a government agency that pays government wages, remains—as it has been for generations—the biggest, if not always the flashiest, player in the global space game. Another example was provided by the year that just passed.


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