Dear PropellerHeads, Am I the only one that got a little emotional when the Mars Rover Opportunity died?
A: It definitely got a little dusty in here when I heard “My battery is low and it’s getting dark,” was its last message. Poor little Rover, all alone out there. Hard not to feel for it…until you remember that it’s a robot and not the one from Short Circuit (Don’t know that one? Number 5 is alive! No? OK, think Wall-E…).
Nonetheless, Opportunity powering down for the last time ended an impressive fifteen-year run of gathering research data for NASA to work with back here on Earth. Its twin rover, Spirit (go.nasa.gov/2uLFZmy), operated on the other side of Mars until 2011, when it became stuck in a sandy area and could no longer explore.
You weren’t the only one whose allergies starting acting up when you heard about Opportunity’s demise. There was a flood, albeit brief…so a flash flood of renewed interest online about outer space and the American space program. Then, as quickly as it came, the flood “waters” subsided. We think that’s a shame here at PropellerHead HQ, because there’s plenty of cool stuff still going on.
Staying on the subject of Mars, we’ve already got another robot on the ground! Launched in May of 2018, and touching down on the red planet in November of that same year, Insight (www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/insight) isn’t a rover like Opportunity and Spirit. Those two rovers just scratched the surface of what we want to know about our neighbor. Insight actually drills into the planet itself to learn more about how the planet came to form, current seismic activity, and perhaps whether or not Mars has always been like we currently know it or something entirely different.
If geological studies aren’t your thing and you want something a little more visually stimulating, check out the Spitzer telescope mission (bit.ly/2Ud3bJO). Starting in 2004, this telescope’s instruments have been peering out into the cosmos, taking breathtaking pictures from within our solar system. Much like the rovers, this mission has been extended because it just keeps working. While the telescope itself is now limited to just its “warm phase” operations, I was able to check out an awesome photo taken just a few days ago.
A couple of upcoming missions that have been approved but won’t physically begin until at least next year are the Lunar Flashlight (go.nasa.gov/2UsegWr), which will be the first CubeSat mission to go to the moon and use green propulsion, and the NEA Scout (go.nasa.gov/2FXxETd), which will explore asteroids near earth orbit. For a complete listing of NASA-sponsored space missions, check out their page (jpl.nasa.gov/missions) and refine the search options to your own preferences.
Ok, so we’ve talked about robots, satellites, and even frickin’ laser beams…what about some more Star Trek-type stuff? Well, a combination of cost, risk, change in mission focus, and international cooperation has led to the virtual halt of NASA’s manned mission and spacecraft design. However, your dreams of taking a holiday on the moon are not even close to dead thanks to Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, and a host of others.
SpaceX (spacex.com) has made news by being the first private space program to successfully deliver a craft and dock with the International Space Station. Using its Falcon series rockets and its Dragon space shuttle, Musk’s company made history back in 2012 and has been making trips back and forth since that time.
Aspiring interplanetary rubberneckers may be more interested in the work of Virgin Galactic (virgingalactic.com), which made news late last year when two of its pilots were the first humans to enter space from an American launch in December. This test flight (and many before it) went well enough that they are talking about taking consumers on space tours starting this year, provided your vacation budget is $250k or more.
Please, take time to check out some of these exciting missions, and include your kids in the discussion. They are going to be the ones who take the next set of ideas from dreams to outer space, so get them interested now.