A Field Guide to Space

New York City’s only* flaw is the light pollution. (*NYC has one million flaws.) Sometimes at the end of a long day of trying to pursue my dreams I would like to look up are be able to see what Rihanna has famously described as “diamonds in the sky”. The assignment of this post was to get people excited about space again, which is crazy because why wouldn’t we be excited about space? But I get it – with all the stress of our lives down here on earth, it’s hard to remember that there is an entire universe above us we have barely explored!!

Can you give me a brief timeline of discoveries?

Sure! Dating back to 450 BC, Greeks pondered the existence of other worlds-

No no don’t go back that far!

Oh, whoops! Well, here is some cool stuff! In 2005, we observed direct light from an exoplanet for the first time. In 2007, NASA’S Spitzer space telescope detected water vapor in the spectrum of the planet HD 189733B (the first time water has been detected on an exoplanet!). Then in 2008, the first visible light images from an exoplanet were released.

Wait, but what is the deal with Mars??

Oh, you mean the Mars Curiosity Rover? Well, the Curiosity Rover just celebrated its one year anniversary on Mars on August 5, 2013. In that year, we learned that new data from Curiosity suggests a catastrophic event destroyed the Martian atmosphere. The Curiosity will keep studying this in order to figure out where the atmosphere (and water) went! Plus, back in May, a Russian capsule filled with mice, newts, snails, gerbils and plants returned from an orbit of Mars. This study should reveal microgravity’s impact on the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems. Ah! (Info from The Telegraph)

Well, have we discovered any new planets?

You bet! In December of 2011 Kepler-22, a star system containing the first planet in the ‘habitable zone’ was confirmed by NASA. (The habitable zone is the sweet spot around a star where temperatures are right for water to exist in its liquid form which is obviously essential for life on Earth.) Plus, in March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is the first of the smaller class of planets to be discovered and it’s also the closest to Earth. Ceres orbits the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is considered to be potential sources for harboring life! This is HUGE news and is potentially a game changer! Astronomers have found evidence of carbonates (minerals that form in a process involving water and heat) AND carbonates are often produced by living processes! You can read more here.

Hmm, well I don’t want to tell NASA what to do, but maybe we should go further out into space or something?

Well, we are! In fact, just last week, Voyager finally left the solar system after years of anticipation. You should know that, the spacecraft’s technology is kind of funny. Not only does it carry an 8-track tape recorder but at the time is left Earth (36 years ago) computers with one-240,000th the memory of a low-end iPhone. Now we have plenty of telescopes that gaze at the far parts of the Milky Way, but Voyager 1 can actually experience that part of space. It can touch and feel the cold, in the unexplored regions and send back detailed data about the conditions.

Fun Fact: It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

Ah! This is all so exciting! Let’s keep exploring!

Well, hold on there! Here’s the deal with NASA’s budget now: it’s tight. In July, house lawmakers debated NASA’s 2014 budget and the NASA authorization bill drafted by the Republican majority of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology proposes to slash NASA’s funding to $16.6 billion for 2014. While $16.6 billions sounds like a crazy amount of money, it’s $300 million less than NASA received in 2013, and $1.1 billion less than President Obama requested for NASA in 2014. Currently the budget is still under negotiation but there is a chance that NASA will lose a lot of funding which means a lot less exploring.

In the meantime we can gaze at the stars and hope that NASA gets the money it needs.

Featured image via my dad. Thanks Dad!