Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What is the state of current space exploration?

With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet there is a substantial amount of misunderstanding and confusion among the general public. Many think that it marks the demise of NASA and of space exploration in general. However, this is inaccurate and I will try to set the record straight. 

What is space exploration? Seeking and discovering new scientific data that broadens our horizons, quite literally. NASA has no competition in the world and the distant second is European Space Agency with JAXA (Japenese Space Agency) a third, in some sense. Mankind explores outer space in two ways: sending  probes and space telescopes. The latter are used primarily to answer big astronomical questions about our place in the Universe, while the former is currently limited to the Solar System. We have several prominent missions both ongoing and soon-to-be-launched. The Kepler space telescope is one the most ambitious mission in the history of humanity, so far, in terms of seeking out worlds (planets) outside our Solar System. We have New Horizons probe rushing towards the Kuiper Belt, specifically Pluto and its moons. Most advanced robotic rover ever conceived is going to be launched to the Red Planet this year and the Dawn spacecraft has begun its three-month long orbit insertion in the Asteroid Belt, which will not only open up two almost entirely known worlds, known as Vesta and Ceres, but also reveal the processes of planet formation.

You can learn about these and other missions in the official SpaceChronology.com website. 

But what was the role of the space shuttle fleet? You may ask. It is an orbit delivery system, to get cargo, mainly satellites and astronauts into space. Astronauts work on the International Space Station where we learn how to live in space, which is crucial to our long term space colonization prospects and intentions. These missions are what is known as manned space program. However, NASA is still building rockets to send probes and deliver space satellites into outer space. Building rockets is not cutting edge technology anymore, in fact private companies will soon take over this task, think of them as space taxis, they get equipment where it needs to go. Until that happens NASA is going to hitch a ride on cheap Russian rockets and Soyuz-spacecraft which have been in use since the 1960's. 

Even though the taxi is temporarily of foreign origin, NASA is still conducting the bulk of space exploration and this is not likely to change in the coming decades. Those of you who were worried that space exploration is being somehow terminated, don't worry, it isn't 

There is, however, a danger of the next generation cutting-edge unprecedented awe-inspiring James Webb Space Telescope being terminated due to pending budget cuts in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you are concerned about the future of space exploration, please contact your Representative and Senators to express your concern, urging them to vote against termination of the JWST project. This is by far the most important project in Astronomy and will benefit humanity for decades to come.

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