Despite being victims of a government shutdown, NASA is still making headlines in a week filled with big headlines.
In case you have either been living under a rock, or perhaps don’t keep up with American political news, the United States government has been shut down. The explanation of such action is lengthy so long story short, if it isn’t absolutely necessary, it isn’t open. National Parks, Monuments, military facilities, and apparently NASA.
As the nation’s space agency celebrated it’s 55th birthday, the lights were turned off.
So what does this mean for the space program? Well roughly 97% of the NASA workforce aren’t at work. Everything they were working on? Well that is all stalled for the moment. Thankfully there is one project that is still on track, the Mars MAVEN launch which is currently scheduled for November 18th.
Initially shuttered along with the rest of NASA, the MAVEN project was among one of the most time sensitive. If the probe were to miss its launch window in late November/early December, the chance for a second attempt would not come around until 2016. However, the probe was deemed a necessary project due only in part to its role in the Mars rover missions. Like many things governmental, it likely came down to money.
The amount of funds already invested in the Mars rover program is vast, as is that already being used in the MAVEN project. To shut down further progress, plus risk losing connectivity to the rovers, is a financial risk that apparently the powers that be were unwilling to take. So the project, in its last stages of building and testing in Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center, will continue.
Not all the news was gloom from NASA this week however. The aforementioned Mars rover, Curiosity, made news of its own when a report was released that the rover had discovered that the dirt on Mars contains water. Up to 2% of the soil on the red planet as a matter of fact, is indeed water. Laurie Leshin, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute talked to Space.com of the discovery.
For me, that was a big ‘wow’ moment, I was really happy when we saw that there’s easily accessible water here in the dirt beneath your feet. And it’s probably true anywhere you go on Mars.
Comprised of a neutron and a proton, as opposed to water as we know it, the Mars dirt water is thought to be absorbed from the surrounding atmosphere. Unfortunately this discovery doesn’t do anything for the hope that Mars is conducive to organic life today. Earlier in the year the rover did find evidence that the planet was habitable billions of years ago.
From Mars to Kepler-7b, the good news keeps rolling in from NASA. While Curiosity is finding water in dirt, two NASA telescopes, Kepler and Spitzer, have allowed scientists to create the first cloud map of a planet not of our solar system, also known as an “exoplanet”.
Brice-Olivier Demory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the authors of the paper titled, INFERENCE OF INHOMOGENEOUS CLOUDS IN AN EXOPLANET ATMOSPHERE, which documents the discovery, explained.
By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution ‘map’ of this giant, gaseous planet. We wouldn’t expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds.
By using the powers of each respective telescope, the scientists were able to create an image of a planet that looks like something straight from the pages of a sci-fi movie. Dark and mysterious, with more questions than answers. As impressive as these stories are, it is a bit mind-boggling to imagine that we are standing at the cusp of a whole host of new discoveries when it comes to both our galaxy and those beyond.
Those of us who spend the entirety of our lives here on Earth, it can be difficult to even fathom such possibilities. For those who have had the opportunity to see beyond? To see Earth from the outside looking in? They have a bit of a different perspective, described as the “Overview”.
While there are undoubtedly victims of a government shutdown perhaps more deserving of headlines and attention, it is not hard to agree that we live in an exciting time in regards to space and all it holds. We can only hope that NASA and the countless scientists that work with the space agency are able to return to their work posthaste in hopes of uncovering some of what we still do not know.