NASA has had a very good year. Seriously, NASA has had the sort of "very good year" that Frank Sinatra used to sing about.
At the end of last year, we started to notice something different with NASA. After years of floundering around without any real sense of direction or a mission (or, you know a decent operating budget), NASA seemed to find a sense of purpose toward the end of 2014 when they finally launched Orion, the spacecraft that is slated to one day tote astronauts to the Martian surface, in a flawless execution.
The Orion victory seemed to bring new life and vitality to NASA and NASA scientists went into 2015 ready to finally start showing the country and the rest of the world why this space agency still matters.
Sure, NASA is now even more intent on handing over things like transportation and the International Space Station to commercial space companies in the coming years — that was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's main point when he spoke in Houston in November — but the agency has also actually been doing big things this year, making the kinds of discoveries that fire up the imagination and get everyone looking up at the stars again and seeing space as a place of possibility.
And because NASA has a long record of being savvy about new technology and social media, the space agency has used its Instagram account — which currently has about 7.5 million followers — to share striking images that can't help but grab the eye and make a person more curious than ever to see what NASA is up to.
But what's really been pure gold for NASA this year is the way the space agency has used Instagram to show people what they're working on, fantastic photos of out-of-this-world things, and then to explain it. We're not saying that NASA's Instagram account is why the space agency is set to get its largest budget increase in more than a decade — and it's not because of The Martian either — but these photos that give people such a clear and fascinating window into what exactly it is that NASA does can only have helped.
For one thing, there have been NASA's incredible discoveries on Mars and NASA officials have been smart enough to make sure that these discoveries translate to photos of the planet and of the Curiosity rover exploring the planet.
Yes, NASA is working to get astronauts to the red planet, but in the meantime NASA scientists have made some incredible discoveries about Mars using data gathered from the Curiosity rover and things they've observed from right here on Earth. In the past year we've learned through NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that the planet has liquid water on it, briny stuff that occasionally trickles over the Martian slopes causing dark streaks to appear. We also found out, courtesy of NASA, about the solar winds that stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere and turned it into the dusty, barren hunk of a planet we see today.
Meanwhile, Curiosity has been sending back all kinds of pictures, including this selfie:
Selfie on Mars! A sweeping view of the "Pahrump Hills" outcrop on Mars, where our Curiosity rover has been working for five months, surrounds the rover in Curiosity's latest self-portrait. The selfie scene is assembled from dozens of images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover's robotic arm. Pahrump Hills is an outcrop of the bedrock that forms the basal layer of Mount Sharp, at the center of Mars' Gale Crater.Curiosity's drill collected the mission's second taste of Mount Sharp. Darker ground at upper right and lower left holds ripples of wind-blown sand and dust. The view does not include the rover's robotic arm. Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic's component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, that were used in this mosaic. This process was used previously in acquiring and assembling Curiosity self-portraits taken at sample-collection sites "Rock Nest" Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS #nasa #space #mars #curiosity #rover #selfie #science @NASAJPL
Even though NASA officials have recently made it crystal clear that the space agency will be ditching the International Space Station in the next decade, it's still getting plenty of use right now. For one thing, NASA started its twin study when it sent Astronaut Scott Kelly up to the ISS about nine months ago to spend a year in space.
This study is remarkable — and a little more fancy than the Russian one since the Russians don't have twin astronauts — because NASA is monitoring Scott Kelly on the ISS while also keeping track of retired astronaut Mark Kelly back on Earth. By the end of all of this NASA will have a beginning of an idea of what it means to the human body to spend a year in space versus a year on Earth. That's the kind of info that the agency will need as we get closer to actually sending astronauts out of Low Earth Orbit, past the moon and to new worlds, starting with Mars in the 2030s.
Also, Kelly has been snapping incredible pictures and posting them on Twitter and on NASA's Instagram:
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) captured photographs and video of auroras from the International Space Station on June 22, 2015. Kelly wrote, " I've never seen this before- red #aurora. Spectacular! #YearInSpace." Kelly is on a one-year mission in space, testing the limits of human research, space exploration and the human spirit. Most expeditions to the space station last four to six months. By doubling the length of this mission, researchers hope to better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to long-duration spaceflight. This knowledge is critical as we look toward human journeys deeper into the solar system, including to and from Mars, which could last 500 days or longer. Image Credit: NASA #nasa #iss #space #isscrew #spacestation #science #journeytomars
NASA's Cassini spacecraft, an unmanned craft that arrived and started probing Saturn (ha) in 2004, has continued to send back remarkable images of Saturn's moon, Enceladus. NASA researchers have been into Enceladus ever since they recognized signs of geologic activity on the icy moon and something liquid and sloshy at the moon's south pole.
This year it was confirmed that Enceladus holds a global ocean beneath its crust. In mid-December Cassini conducted its final fly-by of Enceladus. Cassini won't be stopping by anymore but it will continue to monitor the moon from afar for the duration of its mission through 2017. Why? Well, because it's a moon with a big old ocean on it. Who wouldn't want to find out more about what's going on up there?
Fresh Tiger Stripes on Enceladus: Do underground oceans vent through the tiger stripes (in false-color blue) on Saturn's moon Enceladus? The long features dubbed tiger stripes are known to spew ice from the moon's icy interior into space, creating a cloud of fine ice particles over the moon's south pole and creating Saturn's mysterious E-ring. Why #Enceladus is active remains a mystery, as the neighboring moon Mimas, approximately the same size, appears to be quite dead. An analysis of dust captured by Cassini found evidence for sodium as expected in a deep salty ocean. Such research is particularly interesting since such an ocean would be a candidate to contain life. Conversely however, recent Earth-based observations of ice ejected by Enceladus into Saturn's E-Ring showed no evidence of the expected sodium. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA Picture from June 2009 is a high resolution Cassini image of Enceladus from a close flyby #nasa #cassini #space #moons #water #nasabeyond#solarsystem #science #astronomy
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And then there was the pure giddy joy we all got to experience when NASA's New Horizon's probe started swooping past Pluto and sending back the first close-ups we've ever had from the planet. Within days of the probe's arrival we learned all kinds of things about Pluto, like the fact that the dwarf planet is actually a lot bigger than we thought, measuring 1,473 miles across. We also learned that Pluto has a polar ice cap and that the planet's atmosphere is leaking faster than scientists expected. And, most importantly, we learned that Pluto has a heart, as you can see below. Well, you know, it's not a heart so much as a heart shape, but it's a nice idea.
The best part about the whole Pluto probe thing is how everyone reacted to all this new information about a planet more than 3 billion miles away. People got excited and interested.
Gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach, which was at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday - about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Images from closest approach are expected to be released on Wednesday, July 15. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons#solarsystem #nasabeyond #science
So now we get to sit and ponder all of the possibilities of the coming year. Imagine what's going to happen if NASA really does keep its sense of direction — the direction being space around the moon, asteroids and then Mars — and a budget to back up the space agency's sense of mission. We won't be so foolish to say that NASA will be able to do anything, but it might actually be able to do the things that NASA officials have been saying they intend to do. In a world where a lot of people and agencies promise things and don't deliver, we're looking at a space agency that may actually follow through in the coming year. We can't wait to see what 2016 will bring, NASA-wise.