On Wednesday morning during the quiet hours of twilight, a 32-story rocket blasted into space from a launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In a burst of flames and smoke, the citrus-colored vessel brightened the dark sky with a synthetic sunset as it propelled a little white spacecraft toward none other than Earth’s glowing companion, the moon.
At last, the Artemis I lunar mission has lifted off.
Initially, Artemis I’s launch had been planned for Aug. 29, butto be scrubbed — try No. 2 on Sept. 2 was also a no-go, but lucky No. 3 appears to be a tremendous success. With space missions, however, the future is never really quite certain, and liftoff really was only the beginning of Artemis I’s journey. Nonetheless, after years of , Artemis I’s starry excursion has begun, and the launch was a sight for the ages.
Though the vehicle that was commissioned for this endeavor — formally named the Space Launch System and also renowned as the most powerful rocket in the world — didn’t usher astronauts to the moon’s surface this time around, Artemis I is kind of NASA’s golden ticket to new adventures in outer space.
Showing off the brilliant orange hue of its insulated spray-on coating, Artemis I’s SLS helped carry instruments to lunar orbit that’ll soon gather vital information for the Artemis II mission, which will bring humans along, to orbit the lunar sphere. Then, Artemis II will pave the way for that may, at last, add more boot prints to the powdery gray soil, alongside those imprinted decades ago by Apollo astronauts. And that’s just an overview of the first three steps of NASA’s Artemis odyssey.
Eventually, this program is poised to let NASA accomplish thrilling feats like landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon, building a lunar base camp, constructing a spaceship in lunar orbit, connecting an off-world internet, and even laying the groundwork for a future in which humankind settles Mars.
“When we think about Artemis, we focus a lot on the moon,” Reid Wiseman, chief astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in an Aug. 5 press conference. “But I just want everybody in the room and everybody watching to remember our sights are not set on the moon. Our sights are set clearly on Mars.”
All things considered, Artemis I is such a big deal because the success of this mission will dictate the timeline for NASA’s sci-fi moon objectives.
You can think of Artemis I as an extremely high-stakes precursor to everything that comes next for American lunar exploration, founded on everything that came before.
Before launching into space, the SLS even got situated for its big day on launchpad 39B, poetically standing where NASA’s Saturn V once stood for Apollo 10. Not only did Apollo 10 christen 39B, but it also illuminated the way for , Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s historic landing on the glowing orb (with Michael Collins orbiting patiently in the Command Module).
“To all of us that gaze up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a press conference, “folks, we’re here — we are going back. And our journey begins with Artemis I.”
Now let’s talk about some Artemis I specifics.
Artemis and Apollo: How NASA’s SLS Moon Rocket Stacks Up to Saturn V
Artemis I 101
There are two major components to the Artemis I space explorer: an apricot-colored SLS rocket and a conical, white spacecraft dubbed Orion. Prior to launch, Orion topped the SLS like the spire of a castle tower.
And within Orion, there’s a lot going on. It’s basically the cabin car of Artemis I.
Inside this uncannily retro craft, NASA strapped in Girl Scout space science badges and other pop culture icons. But on the other hand, the agency filled it with some hard-core science equipment, such as satellites, radiation detectors, human stand-ins, freeze-dried yeast for biology experiments and miscellaneous data collection tools., , a few
Ultimately, the goal was for the superpowerful SLS to propel Orion toward lunar orbit. So far, everything seems to be going swell. Orion is on its way.
And during its trip, all the fun bric-a-brac will be baptized into the extraterrestrial club, science mechanisms will detail what the trajectory looks and feels like, and the humanlike mannequins will react to dangerous aspects of space travel, like radiation absorption, for assessment on the ground. Once complete, Orion is expected to safely splash down off the coast of San Diego.
If you’re into the technicalities, a detailed look at the.
“Orion will venture farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown,” Nelson said. “And after its long flight test, Orion will come home faster and hotter than any spacecraft has before. It’s going to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 32 times the speed of sound.”
This bit might be especially important if, as the agency hopes, the SLS and Orion design supports future missions written to one day access Mars, and maybe even deep space. According to Nelson, if Orion were to return to Earth from a Martian expedition, it might reach velocities around 36 times the speed of sound.
Lucky for us spacegazers (yes, I meant to not say stargazers), Orion also has cameras installed so we can watch what’s happening as it pursues its expedition. “We’re going to try and catch the Earthrise,” Rick LaBrode, lead flight director at Johnson Space Center, said excitedly in a press conference. “That’s a spectacular image.”
Even as Orion began ascending from our planet, NASA started to broadcast a livestream of its perspective. “We intend to bring each and every one of you along throughout the course of the mission,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said during the press conference. “We will share imagery both from the ground as well as the launch vehicle on the spacecraft throughout.”
OK, I’m on the edge of my seat. But what’s next?
Considering how much I write about the moon, I’ve often wondered what might’ve happened if NASA continued its Apollo program – uninhibited by Cold War tensions and budget-cut setbacks.
Could there’ve been an international space station orbiting the moon? Might there have been lunar settlements? Or perhaps astronauts could’ve ridden from crater to crater in ATVs? Well, in a way, we might be about to find out. Artemis is sort of picking up where its Greek-namesake twin, Apollo, left off. (Apollo was a god, Artemis a goddess.) “This is now the Artemis generation,” Nelson said.
I mean, assuming everything goes to plan with all stages of Artemis, here are some things to look forward to in the coming decade or so. (OK, but to reiterate, a lot has to go to plan for any of this to happen.)
The Lunar Gateway
With the help of international space agencies from at least 18 other countries, NASA signed the Artemis Accords, which basically underscore principles required for peaceful space cooperation. Part of this agreement gave rise to an idea called the Lunar Gateway. The Lunar Gateway is a planned small space station that’ll sit in lunar orbit and serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, habitation module for astronauts, holding center for rovers or robots and other such things. It’s like a moon ISS.
Already, in fact, microwave oven-size satellite named Capstone to lunar orbit to tease out relevant information for the Gateway.a
“Gateway’s capabilities for supporting sustained exploration and research in deep space include docking ports for a variety of visiting spacecraft, space for crew to live and work, and on-board science investigations to study heliophysics, human health, and life sciences, among other areas,” NASA said.
We’ve also got the prospect of the LunaNet, which’ll serve the navigation, networking and other communication responsibilities of Artemis astronauts. “Astronaut safety and wellbeing are key concerns of the Artemis missions,” NASA’s search and rescue office mission manager for national affairs, Cody Kelly, said in a statement. “Using LunaNet’s navigation services, LunaSAR will provide location data to NASA distress beacons should contingencies arise.”
Lunar terrain vehicles, or LTVs, are also planned for the future. These sort of will transport Artemis astronauts around the lunar South Pole when they get there. This invention is still very much in progress — understandably.
“Most people do a lot of research before buying a car,” Nathan Howard, project manager for the LTV at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. “We’re doing extensive research for a modern space vehicle that will be provided by industry. As we plan for long-term exploration of the Moon, the LTV won’t be your grandfather’s Moon Buggy used during the Apollo missions.”
Moon Base Camp
Perhaps the most exhilarating part of all of this is that if Artemis works out, we’ll have a .
“To give astronauts a place to live and work on the Moon, the agency’s Artemis Base Camp concept includes a modern lunar cabin, a rover and even a mobile home,” NASA said. “Early missions will include short surface stays, but as the base camp evolves, the goal is to allow crew to stay at the lunar surface for up to two months at a time.”
Two months at a time, the agency said. It’s simply surreal to consider that the next many years could be filled with the level of lunar exploration that NASA believes the Artemis program can achieve. It might be why the punchy motto of these missions inspires goose bumps.
“We are going.” Well, now, I guess it’s more accurate to say “We’re on our way.”
Is there life on Mars? Maybe, and it could have dropped its teddy
Yogi, Paddington and Winnie the Pooh, move over. There’s a new bear in town. Or on Mars, anyway.
The beaming face of a cute-looking teddy bear appears to have been carved into the surface of our nearest planetary neighbor, waiting for a passing satellite to discover it.
And when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over last month, carrying aboard the most powerful camera ever to venture into the Solar System, that’s exactly what happened.
Scientists operating the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), which has been circling Mars since 2006, crunched the data that made it back to Earth, and have now published a picture of the face.
“There’s a hill with a V-shaped collapse structure (the nose), two craters (the eyes), and a circular fracture pattern (the head),” said scientists at the University of Arizona, which operates the kit.
Each one of the features in the 2,000-meter (1.25-mile)-wide face has a possible explanation that hints at just how active the surface of the planet is.
“The circular fracture pattern might be due to the settling of a deposit over a buried impact crater,” the scientists said.
“Maybe the nose is a volcanic or mud vent and the deposit could be lava or mud flows?”
HiRISE, one of six instruments aboard the Orbiter, snaps super-detailed pictures of the Red Planet helping to map the surface for possible future missions, either by humans or robots.
Over the last ten years the team has managed to capture images of avalanches as they happened, and discovered dark flows that could be some kind of liquid.
They’ve also found dust devils twirling across the Martian surface, as well as a feature that some people thought looked a lot like Star Trek’s Starfleet logo.
One thing they have not found, however, is the little green men who were once popularly believed to inhabit the planet.
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Why I Hunt for Sidewalk Fossils
These oft-overlooked records invite us to imagine what has been and what might be.
A paleontologist once told me that city sidewalks hold snapshots. If I trained my gaze toward my feet, he said, I would find evidence of all kinds of commutes: traces of hopping birds, the soles of humans’ shoes, restless leaves that fell and sank into wet concrete at just the right moment. I might see a smattering of little paw prints zigging, zagging, doubling back, evidence of important rodent business that didn’t often overlap with mine.
These marks are too recent to pass muster with scientific sticklers, but in all respects except age, they are fossils. There are many ways to make one. Some form when a creature is entombed in sediment: Water percolates through, flush with minerals, and over time the mixture infiltrates the bones, where it settles and forms stone. Other fossils are casts, made, for instance, when a shell dissolves and leaves behind a mold that eventually fills with sediment, which hardens into rock. But not all fossils involve remains; some catalog movements. These are the kind that stipple our sidewalks — nascent trace fossils, records of fleeting contact.
Throughout the pandemic, I turned to nature to track time and step outside myself. I photographed the sweetgum tree outside my Brooklyn window, noting when it leafed into a bushy chlorophylled curtain or when it dropped fruit that fell to the ground like unshattered ornaments. Most afternoons of that first lonely spring, I roamed a cemetery. When magnolia blossoms smudged the scene pink, I stood under the canopies until wind splashed the petals against my shoulders.
I was lucky, of course, to be simply scared and lonely — not dead, not intubated, not choosing between peril and paycheck. But time was slippery, and I felt stuck in my own brain, a foggy, trembling ecosystem I had no interest in studying. By early 2022, I was cocooned in my partner’s Morningside Heights apartment. On weekend mornings, we shuffled around the neighborhood, and each volunteered to notice something new: a startling mushroom, the pale bellies of pigeons waterfalling down a facade before flocking skyward. I became fixated on sidewalk fossils. Fossil-finding outings were a relief — an invitation to crouch, touch, lose myself in evidence of skittering and scrabbling, tethering myself to a past and a future.
Once I started noticing these impressions, it was fun to imagine myself as a paleontologist of the urban present.
Because sidewalk fossils are essentially the same color as the surrounding concrete, they’re most visible when light rakes across them; a fossil that’s elusive at noon might announce itself at dawn or dusk. So I timed a second daily walk for the hour when the light fled. Late afternoons introduced me to tiny forked footprints that marked the scene of, perhaps, an avian skirmish. There were others: a dog’s paws, three-quarters of a shoe. Though ichnologists, who study trace fossils, might discount leaves, I marveled at those too: most of a London plane and a ginkgo, with its corrugated fan. Across from a closed-up snack cart, I knelt until the cold concrete prickled my knees. I wriggled out of my mitten and traced a leaf’s sharp, diagonal veins, its saw-toothed sides.
When scientists encounter a fossil, they often try to puzzle out an explanation of how it got there. Maybe an animal was stranded or washed off its feet or chased by predators. Once I started noticing these impressions, it was fun to imagine myself as a paleontologist of the urban present. A bonanza of bird feet made me wonder if someone had sprinkled seeds or dropped a bagel. How long ago? What kind? When a leaf didn’t seem to match any of the nearby trees, I wondered if it was an interloper, blown in from blocks away or if it testified to an ecological eviction — a tree yanked out and replaced with another species or swapped for sidewalk. The fossils fastened my attention to something tangible but also invited it to wander and to think about city streets as collages of past and present, about how our nonhuman neighbors are architects, too. How we all shed traces of ourselves, whether we know it or not.
Of course, there is more significant proof of the past. Mammoths sometimes turn up in farmers’ fields, their tusks curved like scythes abandoned in the dirt. Parades of dinosaur footprints still march along the banks or beds of some prehistoric rivers and seas. Those are awesome, showy and obvious. I line up to see them; I happily gawk. But it was a tiny thrill to encounter evidence of the past that was subtle and recent, proof that others were out there. The sidewalk fossils felt intimate — the paleontological equivalent of a raft of letters secreted away beneath a floorboard.
Only they’re not actually rare. When sidewalks are repaired, birds and other animals ignore attempts to keep them pristine. Leaves do whatever the wind demands. These fossils are easy to find, and we’re lucky to have them. When I was lingering in the worst parts of my brain, sidewalk fossils dislodged me. Unlike the many fossils that represent stillness, the moment when an animal died and the place it remained unless humans carved it free, sidewalk fossils are often peeks into lives that continued. The birds flew somewhere; the dogs, I hope, went on to wag over many sticks and smells. As the sun sank and I trudged home, the fossils — these little flukes, these interesting accidents — were reminders of small, exhilarating life.
Jessica Leigh Hester is a science journalist whose first book is “Sewer” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).
Green comet expected to be visible for first time in 50 millennia
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is visible with binoculars, telescopes and in some areas, the naked eye – and it will grow brighter.
A green-hued comet is expected to be the most visible to stargazers on Wednesday as it shoots past Earth and the sun for the first time in about 50,000 years.
Discovered less than a year ago, the dirty snowball last passed near Earth during Neanderthal times, according to NASA.
The cosmic visitor will swing by our planet within 42 million kilometres (26 million miles) Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.
This harmless comet already is visible in a clear northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere.
It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, and is best seen in the predawn hours. By February 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.
Stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
Finding a remote location to avoid light pollution in populated areas is key to catching a nice view of the comet as it journeys past our planet heading away from the sun and back toward the solar system’s outer reaches.
While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet-and asteroid-tracking expert, Paul Chodas.
Nicknamed “dirty snowballs” by astronomers, comets are balls of ice, dust and rocks and wander towards the inner solar system when they’re dislodged from various gravitational forces, becoming more visible as they venture closer to the heat given off by the sun.
Fewer than a dozen comets are discovered each year by observatories around the world.
The green comet was discovered on March 2, 2022 by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide-field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in Palomar Mountain, California, the United States. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
Its greenish, emerald hue reflects the comet’s chemical composition – it is the result of a clash between sunlight and carbon-based molecules in the comet’s coma, the cloud around the nucleus that makes the comet appear fuzzy in the sky.
This comet last passed Earth at a time when Neanderthals still inhabited Eurasia, the human species was expanding its reach beyond Africa, big Ice Age mammals including mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed the landscape, and northern Africa was a wet, fertile and rainy place.
The comet can provide clues about the primordial solar system because it formed during the solar system’s early stages, according to California Institute of Technology physics professor Thomas Prince.
NASA plans to observe the comet with its James Webb Space Telescope, which could provide clues about the solar system’s formation.
The Virtual Telescope Project at the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Ceccano, Italy will have a live feed accessible here.
The comet — a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — came from what’s known as the Oort cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.
While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, NASA’s Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.
But don’t fret if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”
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