With the end of the Space Shuttle program and the rather routine nature of International Space Station missions, most Americans have forgotten about the human exploration of space. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope no longer captivate mainstream humanity as they did in the 1990's. The fantastic discovery of exoplanets has become ordinary and the average person has difficulty relating to what difference it makes that these other worlds even exist, we can’t optically see them, can't visit them and can only infer a few things about them. Talk about the return of humans to the Moon or of the colonization of Mars seems far-fetched in these times of soaring public deficits. The “space race” zeitgeist of the 1960’s is long-dead and little about space holds the attention of the public at large. We seem to be in a space malaise.
Yet there is an astonishing amount of space exploration activity going on right now, some of it remarkable for its juxtaposition. The New Horizons space probe’s flyby of the farthest object we have ever seen up close coincided with the OSIRIS-REx rendezvous with the smallest object ever orbited by humans in space. Both events occurred within a few hours of each other last week.
New Horizons was launched back in 2006 and made an historic fly-by of Pluto in 2015. Now out in Kuiper Belt, some 4 billion miles away, NASA received the first images of Ultima Thule, a relatively small object, on New Year's Day. Meanwhile, OSIRIS-REx, launched in 2016, entered orbit around Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, on New Year's Eve. It strikes me as noteworthy and impressive that these two missions, launched a decade apart and with billions of miles separating them, had similar, historic close-up encounters literally within hours of each other. No one planned for this to happen back in 2006. It just worked out that way, an impressive, coincidental simultaneous feat.
SpaceX continues to make history for the suddenly booming market of private commercial space exploration. Its innovative reusable Falcon 9 rocket made history throughout 2018. It successfully deployed a US record 64 satellites(!) in a single mission with its most recent launch. Also with that mission, the first stage of the rocket became the first reusable to be launched three times in a single year, blasting off from three different locations, another record. Finally, the mission itself was SpaceX's 19th launch overall in 2018, breaking its own previous record of 18 in 2017. Along with Blue Origin and many other up and coming players, corporate competition is starting drive space flight - and that is probably a good thing.
Late 2018 was a historic time for space exploration in other ways. Voyager 2 reached interstellar space, some 11 billion miles away. Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe flew closer to the Sun than ever before, coming within 25.5 million miles of it last October. Future orbital passes will eventually fly within 4 million miles of our solar system's star. Also in October, the first "orphan" gamma ray burst was detected by earth-bound radio telescopes, the invisible energy from an exploding star we never saw. It is a powerful testimony to the fact that there is a reality out there. That star exploded about 25 years ago and we never experienced it in any way. We can only experience the after-effects of its original, tangible existence. On a more mundane but nevertheless historic note, NASA chose a new space plane design that will help ensure resupply the ISS in the future.
In November, the Insight probe landed on Mars. Thanks to it we have seen our first Martian sunset. We can listen to the wind on Mars. The probe will continue to add to our rather extensive knowledge of the red planet, its discoveries joining those of almost 50 other space probes we have sent to the red planet.
Globally speaking, there has never been a time of more diverse space exploration. 70 nations have formed space agencies, 13 countries now have launch capabilities, and 7 have active programs sending humans, satellites, and probes into space. Most recently, Japan has landed on an asteroid. India's space program is one of the most ambitious. They are committed to begin manned space flight by 202o. China recently became the first country to land on the far side of the Moon. One experiment being conducted by China's lunar lander is a rudimentary "biosphere" involving potato seeds, watercress, and silkworm eggs. For the moment, there actually is life on the Moon. The Chinese are a serious player to watch in the immediate future of space exploration, along with Russia and the United States.
I keep up with the latest developments in space exploration for my Flipboard magazine, Notice: Space. Even though humanity does not have the general buzz and excitement about space missions that it once had, there are still plenty of people on the planet that realize our future lies in understanding and eventually colonizing space. For me, it remains as exciting a time to be alive as ever where space is concerned.
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