In depth

What is NASA working on?

A running list of all of NASA's exciting developments

NASA has a lot in the works, from taking amazing pictures of space to putting humans on the moon and Mars. 

Artemis mission

Perhaps the mission with the most publicity, NASA's Artemis mission aims to put people back on the moon and "establish the first long-term presence." The project has bipartisan support, as it was created during the Trump administration and reaffirmed during the Biden administration, according to Ars Technica

The mission is ongoing and takes place in phases. Artemis I took place in November 2022 to "demonstrate Orion's systems in a spaceflight environment and ensure a safe reentry, descent, splashdown and recovery prior to the first flight with crew on Artemis II." The phase tested the safety of NASA's Space Launch System rocket using mannequins in preparation for phase II.

Artemis II is expected to occur no later than November 2024, according to The phase will last approximately 10 days when "four astronauts will fly around the Moon to test NASA's foundational human deep space exploration capabilities, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, for the first time with crew." NASA announced the astronauts who will be taking part in the mission, and they have begun training. The crew includes American astronauts Victor Glover, Christina Koch and Reid Wiseman, and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. "We're building a robust training plan for the crew to ensure they're ready for every aspect of this first mission to the Moon under Artemis on our newest spacecraft and rocket," said Jacki Mahaffey, the lead training officer for the Artemis II crew, in a statement.

The next phase of the mission is Artemis III, which "will mark humanity's first return to the lunar surface in more than 50 years" and "make history by sending the first humans to explore the region near the lunar South Pole." This phase is scheduled to take place in 2025. Elon Musk's SpaceX will collaborate on the mission to create the landing system on the moon. Researchers are also eyeing landing locations on the moon, some of which contain water ice, that could be of use on future missions.

NASA has also hinted at an Artemis IV, which is expected to take place in 2027. The goal is to "land on the moon while continuing to build out a supporting NASA-led lunar station called Gateway," according to Mark Kirasich, the deputy associate administrator for Artemis campaign development. "While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all," stated NASA.

On to Mars

NASA wants to use the outcomes of the Artemis mission to push humanity to Mars. The space agency is starting with a simulated mission known as the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA), in which four people will live in a simulated Mars-like environment for a year to test the extent to which research can be done, as well as whether people could live and work there. The first simulation will begin in June 2023, and the last one will take place in 2026, per CNN

The simulation was created in hopes of filling Strategic Knowledge Gaps, which are "gaps in knowledge or information required to reduce risk, increase effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions." In this case, there are four main SKGs that make traveling to Mars a high risk: radiation, an eyeball swelling condition that occurs when people spend too much time in low-gravity situations, crew cooperation, and food and nutrition, reported CNN. "Those are risks that in my mind represent things that, if we had a vehicle on the launchpad today to go to Mars, we would advise against the trip," Scott Smith, a co-investigator for CHAPEA, told CNN.

While those preparations are in the works, NASA's Perseverance rover has been making discoveries as well. Scientists have been on the search for signs of ancient life on Mars. The rover's new images "show signs of what was once a rollicking river on Mars," and it seems "deeper and faster-moving than scientists have ever seen evidence for in the past," stated NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Scientists had previously found curving lines on Mars' surface but have only been able to get a closer look thanks the Perseverance.

"These layers are anomalously tall for rivers on Earth," said Libby Ives, a postdoctoral researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "But at the same time, the most common way to create these kinds of landforms would be a river." She added, "It's been a delight to look at rocks on another planet and see processes that are so familiar."

James Webb Telescope

Aside from sending humans to space, NASA has consistently been pushing the boundaries of deep space exploration, namely through the James Webb Telescope. Since its launch at the end of 2021, the telescope has provided breathtaking images of space. The telescope was made to "reveal the hidden universe to our eyes: stars shrouded in clouds of dust, water in the atmospheres of other worlds, and the first light from the earliest galaxies ever formed."

From its first images, the telescope showed "a view the world has never seen before," according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The telescope produces the sharpest infrared images to date, giving us color images of galaxies, as well as regions where stars are formed, such as the Pillars of Creation. "These images, including the deepest infrared view of our universe that has ever been taken, show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don't even yet know to ask."

Along with photos, the telescope has made discoveries. Most recently, Webb's technology discovered water vapor surrounding a comet, but surprisingly there was no carbon dioxide found, as detailed in a study published in the journal Nature. This is a breakthrough in the search for why Earth has water, something scientists are trying to learn using the telescope. "Understanding the history of water distribution in the solar system will help us to understand other planetary systems and if they could be on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet," explained Stefanie Milam, the co-author of the study. Michael Kelley, the lead author, added that the observations "can now demonstrate that water ice from the early solar system can be preserved in the asteroid belt." 

"Now that Webb has confirmed there is water preserved as close as the asteroid belt, it would be fascinating to follow up on this discovery with a sample collection mission," remarked Milam.

Tracking climate changes

NASA's work isn't limited to space. The agency does valuable work for Earth as well, especially in regard to tracking climate change. NASA has an Earth-observing satellite with the ability to track carbon dioxide emissions and removal by country. The pilot project was an international effort that included 60 scientists, and findings were published March 2023 in the journal Earth System Science Data. Tracking carbon emissions was not the initial goal of the satellite, but it provided a unique opportunity. "NASA is focused on delivering Earth science data that addresses real-world climate challenges," said Karen St. Germain, the director of NASA's Earth Science Division.

Another of NASA's satellites has also detected early signs of El Niño, a natural phenomenon that's expected to skyrocket global temperatures. "When we measure sea level from space using satellite altimeters, we know not only the shape and height of water but also its movement, like Kelvin and other waves," explained Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, a NASA program scientist. NASA scientists are also concerned about sand and dust storms, which are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change. 

"While its role is not to set climate policy or prescribe particular responses or solutions to climate change, its job does include providing the scientific data needed to understand climate change." NASA wrote on climate tracking.


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