While the space shuttle program has been mothballed - and with it, NASA's exposure somewhat diminished - the agency is still making huge leaps forward even if fewer people are noticing. Which is a shame because even though the nation's attention has moved away from the heights of space exploration we had reach with the shuttle program in the 1980's, technology continues to advance and, with it, NASA's discoveries grow even bigger. And yet the attention is no longer there.
The agency's Curiosity rover helped put NASA back in headlines with its remarkable journey, landing and, now, images and research going on on Mars. We are learning more and more every day than ever before about the surface of Mars and about the planet itself. To wit, from a recent soil report: "Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity's arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover." These discoveries are mind-blowing but no one cares; exploring space has become old hat to Americans, to the point that even these amazing discoveries on Mars are dismissed.
Just last week, we passed the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission, the last mission America took to the moon. That's right: it's been 40 years since we've been to the moon. And now with the shuttle program also retired, there's no clear next step about manned explorations. That's part of why our collective attention has waned so much. The cost of these programs, especially in light of the recession, has made them less popular as well. But that doesn't mean we can allow ourselves to lose interest in exploring space, in exploring the unknown. There's still so much to discover and every new finding is more and more amazing. Another anniversary - the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mariner 2 voyage (the first planetary flyby) - only serves to remind us of the heights of which NASA is capable.
Two new stories this week have only served to underscore this point.
First, NASA announced that the Hubble telescope had caught the images of seven galaxies that are relatively "ancient" by universe standards. In fact, it appears as if one of those galaxies captured may be the oldest galaxy that's been discovered yet.
UDFj-39546284 was detected previously, and researchers had thought it formed just 500 million years or so after the Big Bang. The new observations, made using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, push its probable formation time back even further.
The seven galaxies constitute the first reliable census of the epoch from 400 million to 600 million years after the universe's birth, researchers said. This census detects a steady increase in galaxies over this period, suggesting that the formation of the first stars and galaxies -- the so-called "cosmic dawn" -- happened gradually rather than suddenly.
Second, NASA is now looking into exploratory missions to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, to measure that moon's habitability. That's right, whether or not humans could live on a moon of Jupiter. Scientist believe that beneath Europa's icy shell is a huge, planet-sized ocean, actual water, which would be the first planetary body confirmed to actually still hold water besides Earth. This is amazing stuff straight out of science-fiction except it's all true. NASA is hoping to launch the Europa Clipper, an unmanned probe, in 2021 to "clip" Europa to collect more information. While it's a bit stripped-down from the originally proposed $4.7 billion plan (this one costs around $2 billion), it would still get as close as 15 miles from Europa's surface.
This is all tremendously exciting and encouraging. Despite the down-turn in the public's interest, NASA is moving forward both into the future and into the universe, continuing to explore and, honestly, to expand wonderment. And they hopefully will for many, many years to come.