It seems the more that we learn about our universe, the more that we want to know. We have an appetite for learning how we fit in the cosmos, how our solar system and beyond came about, and how other solar systems and galaxies were formed. It’s because of this desire to know that there has been a focus on creating new missions that will be sent out to explore the galaxies.
Each year teams of scientists around the globe are finding out new information about the universe. Using the deep space telescopes they are locating supernovae, pulsars, other solar systems and galaxies, adding the data that we have.
They are also making use of mathematical information to realize that the universe contains dark matter that seems to be in a greater amount than regular matter and is influencing how the universe acts and reacts.
The more recent discovery of dark energy has created more questions than answers. These scientists love a mystery and so far, the biggest mystery in the universe is dark energy. We know that it affects the expansion of the universe and that the universe contains around 68% of dark matter.
Scientists have been following the theories of Albert Einstein in understanding that there are amazing properties in space and that “empty space” can have its own energy.
These kinds of questions and theories simply prompt astrophysicists to come up with new ideas, but they can only do so much in the theoretical world. There comes a point when we must develop the technologies to look into the universe with sophisticated satellite telescopes as well as create and send spacecraft out into the cosmos to get answers.
What began as the competitive space race between the USSR and the USA in the 1960s has long since evolved into a complete exploration of our galaxies. We are no longer limited to only two countries jockeying for position in the stars, because now we have many countries that have built their own spacecraft and probes and are sending them out to try to get answers to our questions.
In 2018, the Voyager 2 probe exited our solar system to begin its journey into the rest of the universe. It is the second human made craft to leave the heliosphere, which is the protective bubble that is created by the sun that extends through our solar system and out to Pluto’s orbit.
Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are now in interstellar space, and they continue to send signals back to the research teams. Launched in 1977, both of the probes were originally sent out to explore the solar system, however, at that time, scientists didn’t know how far the heliosphere’s influence extended.
The original mission of the two Voyager probes was simply to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but when they were done with that job, NASA sent them out further and they were heading for deep space. It is expected that the plutonium power sources that supply them with their electricity and allow them to transmit back to Earth will eventually die.
At that time the 20W transmitter and all of their instruments will stop functioning. Until then, both probes continue to transmit a reminder that they are out there and still “alive.”
The success of the two Voyager probes was just the beginning. It takes a long time to put an idea into action in the world of space exploration. We might marvel at the spacecraft, probes, landers, rovers, and high-powered telescopes that are being deployed today, but we have to remember that it may have taken as long as ten years to move them from the drawing board into reality.
Today we have incredible number of missions that are currently active and for each of those, there are tens of hundreds that are being thought of and presented for the exploration of our universe.
While we might hear the news about the launch of a new spacecraft or telescope, but there are hundreds of scientists and engineers in the backrooms and laboratories that are already thinking about projects that will “wow us” ten years from now.
Our society has entered a golden age of technology and it almost seems like we are running fast to keep up with the advances. For each stone that the scientists uncover they find new answers and a lot of questions.
This is why we need to continue to push for new missions, so that we can learn about ourselves and pursue the questions that we have asked throughout the centuries of “who are we, and are we alone in the universe.”
One of the key aspects of entering space and encountering other objects in space is the topic of “planetary protection.” NASA has established guidelines that they must comply with for each and every mission.
The rules are monitored by the NASA division of OSMA (Office of Safety and Mission Assurance) to make sure that as humans, we don’t bring any contaminant from Earth to another object in space.
OSMA describes the policy as: “Planetary Protection is the practice of protecting solar system bodies from contamination by Earth life and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies.
NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection promotes the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments and Earth.”
The reason that NASA has such strict requirements is that we don’t want to interfere with or cause any changes in other objects in space that aren’t part of their natural course. Another way of saying this is that they don’t want to “seed” the universe with potential life in the form of bacteria or contaminants, and this is called the “Genesis Effect.”
The Outer Space Treaty was established in 1969 and involves a set of outer space laws. It was signed by 109 countries and continues to be the rule of law as space exploration evolves.
Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty, requires countries to avoid “harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.”
There are projects that are in consideration that are the opposite of this idea. Scientists believe that when we are ready to try to live on other worlds that we will deliberately send out probes that will help to jumpstart life. One of the most important of these is called the “Genesis Project,” which involves only three steps:
- Searching for transiently habitable planets.
- Sending interstellar robotic crafts for detailed investigations.
- Seeding the candidate planet with in situ synthesized lifeforms.
There are currently so many countries contributing new missions to space exploration that it is almost mind boggling to try to keep up with the information being shared every day. The era of space exploration being funded and guided by government-only institutions has passed. We are now seeing an incredible number of private companies invest and start their own space programs. This newer condition also prompts private companies of various countries to work together and share in both the expense and the glory of exploration.
Alphabetic listing of Universe missions
Big Bang and Cosmology
Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory
Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE)
Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer
Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope
Solar Anomalous and Magnetospherice Particle Explorer (SAMPEX)
Wide-Field Infrared Explorer
Life in the Universe
Planets Beyond the Solar System
- Neutron stars are created when there is a collapse of the core of a supernova star and it explodes. The resulting situation is that it begins to spin at incredible fast rates. Neutron stars can be located in the universe based on the speed of their rotating, and they can spin at up to sixty times per second immediately after they are created. In some unusual situations, the speed can increase to over 600 times per second.
- We might love watching science fiction shows that have explosions during the space battles, but the truth is that there isn’t any sound in space. Absolute silence during the most intense parts of a show would make for boring moments. Sound waves require a medium to travel through. On Earth, we have our atmosphere and even water that sound waves can travel through. Space is a vacuum, when means there is no “medium.”
- No one has any true idea of exactly how many stars are in the universe. Scientists and mathematicians may try to use math for multiplication, but the truth is that when they are done, they come up with “a zillion,” and that is an uncountable quantity. A study done at an Australian National University created an estimate for the number of stars in the universe at 70 sextillion. This translates to 70,000 million million million.
- The sun in our solar system has such a high density that it accounts for 99% of the mass of the whole solar system. When you think about all of the planets, moons, and other objects in our solar system, it is pretty astounding that the sun’s density is almost all of the density and that those objects only make up the 1% that is left over. The intense density of the sun is why it has such dominant gravity and all of the objects in its sphere of influence are drawn to the sun. This isn’t even the most outrageous part, because our sun is really just an average “G-type main-sequence star.” Every second it fuses around 600 million tons of hydrogen to helium as well as converting around 4 million tons of matter to energy as the byproduct.
- When our sun does finally die in 5 billion years, it will become a red giant. This process means that it will expand and grow to the point of enveloping Venus, Mars, Earth, and possibly objects beyond that as well.
- The sun sends more energy that hits the Earth every hour that everyone on the planet uses in a year. The world has increased its requirement for energy and the demand continues to grow. The fact that the sun creates more energy every day has prompted the use of solar energy as a renewable/sustainable option. Unfortunately, solar energy use only accounts for 0.7 percent of the annual electric use globally.
- Cold welding is a strange thing that happens in space when two pieces of the same type of metal touch each other. Both pieces will be immediately bonded and will stick together permanently. This happens due to the fact that the atoms of each type of metal and no way of knowing that they are different pieces and they join together. This occurs in the vacuum of space and doesn’t happen on Earth because we have air and water that separate the pieces. The effect is of great interest for future space construction involving metal-based objects.
- The planet Venus rotates on its axis very slowly. One rotation of Venus takes about 243 Earth days to complete. Oddly, it takes Venus 226 days to complete one orbit around the sun, which is less that Earth.
- On Venus, the sun rises every 117 Earth days. That means that there is a sunrise on Venus only two times during its year, which is really the same day. Venus also has a rotation that is clockwise so that when the sun does rise, it rises in the west and sets in the east.
- Over the last number of decades, scientists have noted that the Red Spot on Jupiter has been shrinking. The spot is a huge spinning storm and it’s so large that we could once fit around three Earths inside of it. According to scientists, we can now fit only one Earth inside of the spot. The spot is shrinking in width but actually growing taller in its length. Some scientists think that the reason of this has to do with Jupiter’s jet streams that either changed location or direction.
- We have relied on the North Star for direction and navigation for thousands of years. However, the North Star (also known as Polaris) will stop being the North Star in around 13,000 years. This is due to a process known as “precession,” which is when the Earth’s axis changes. This is part of the natural cycle of the Earth and it takes about 26,000 years for the axis to trace out in the shape of a cone. Polaris will start to shift positions as the Earth continues and completes the precession process. It’s believed that in 3,000 B.C. Thuban (Alpha Draconis) was the North Star and in around 13,000 years, Vega will be our new North Star. However, in 26,000 years, Polaris will return to being the North Star.