A quick fly through the nearby universe will show you, well, a whole lot of nothing. But, embedded in the nearest bits of that nothing are 8 spectacular planets, dozens of moons, and hundreds of random bits of rock and ice that, depending on where they orbit, fall into such categories as asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and comets. Somewhat randomly distributed around (and sometimes on) these celestial objects are little bits of flying metal.
Locally, COROT (vaguely rhymes with Inspector Perot), obtained first light today (image above, credit CNES 2006 – D. Ducros). This orbital observatory will dedicate it self to the search for rocky worlds around other stars. A product of the European Space Agency, COROT will study nearby stars with its 30cm telescope, looking for slight changes in brightness indicative of planetary transits. The images it takes will also be useful for asteroseismology, the study of how stars bump and wiggle in reaction to chemical and thermal processes deep beneath their surfaces. Pre-launch calculations predict that every 150 days (the time COROT will spend studying one area of the sky), COROT could discover 10-40 rocky planets and tens of gas giants. Since the first published discoveries of an extrasolar planet around a pulsar in 1992, and around a normal star in 1995, astronomers have only discovered 209 extrasolar worlds. With COROT, that number could double in as little as 1 year.
A little farther out, the STEREO spacecraft (left, credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory) are swinging past the moon on their way to their final orbital homes ahead of and behind the Earth. From these positions they will produce three dimensional images of the Sun in much the same way that your two eyes are able to give you a three-dimensional view of the world around you.
Out near Jupiter, the New Horizons (right, credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)) mission is zooming toward its first major science target. While zipping past our solar system’s largest gas giant, New Horizons will test its instruments. New Horizons images will be the first close ups on Jupiter since the Galileo spacecraft ended its life by plunging into Jupiterâ€šÃ„Ã´s atmosphere on Sept 21, 2003 (Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m personally looking forward to seeing what New Horizons can learn about Red Spot Junior.)
Somewhere out past Mars, Stardust is waiting to learn if NASA will let it visit more comets. Launched in 1999, this little capsule that could imaged asteroid Annefrank in November 2002 , investigated comet Wild 2 in Jan 2004, and returned to Earth a sample of comet and interplanetary dust in January 2006.
Also on the go are Mars Express, Venus Express, Rosetta, SOHO, XMM-Newton, Integral, Hubble, Spitzer, Cassini, Voyager I, Voyager II, Spirit, Oppurtunity, and many many more space craft. In recent decades NASA and ESA have demonstrated over and over that while they have their moments of bad luck and stupidity (Mars Polar Lander, anyone?), they can very successfully get to objects all over the solar system and explore them in ways that both bring home good science and get the public interested in space.
At the same time, the private sector is getting in on the space gig as well. SpaceX is readying to test their Falcon 1. Virgin Galactic has a business plan and has partnered with Scaled Composited (the guys behind SpaceShipOne, GlobalFlyer and nospaces in names) to get everyday men and famous dudes into space starting sometime in the next couple years. Bigelow Aerospace has inflated modules on orbit and is aiming to start launching hotel pieces late this year. Along side these companies are roughly two dozen competitors, all aimed at making a buck off of space. Today, the sky isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t a limit for companies seeking to get people and goods farther, faster and cheaper.
In my ideal fantasy universe, each agency and company is able to thrive doing what it does best. In the case of space, NASA and ESA and their international government run space agency brethren use tax dollars to explore with robots and probes, doing the science that serves to excite and inspire, but that doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t exactly do much to raise anyoneâ€šÃ„Ã´s financial bottom line. At the same time, the I dream of seeing some of the two dozen plus commercial space corporations becoming tomorrows PanAm and TWA or UPS and FedEx as they compete to get people and goods everywhere. In this perfect fantasy world, Mars gets explored by man, but it is paid for in the same commercial spirit that the Dutch and British East Indian Trade Companies paid to explore the Earthâ€šÃ„Ã´s oceanâ€šÃ„Ã´s.
But todayâ€šÃ„Ã´s space reality is far from my personal fantasy. Today, NASAâ€šÃ„Ã´s space science budget is getting raped by the manned space program. With congress announcing that budgets will be flat in this first quarter of 2007, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said he will be compensating for a half-billion dollar funding hole by taking money from programs he believes are low priority to fund the International Space Station and Orion crew exploration vehicle programs. So far, money has been cut from weather and climate research budgets, and a lot of people are holding their breath as they wait to see what space exploration programs get put on hold and/or canceled.
So, here is my question for the people who figure out how NASA dollars should be calculated. When was the last time a press release from the International Space Station (ISS) took someoneâ€šÃ„Ã´s breath away the same way Cassini images so often do? When was the last time science results from the ISS made people think life the way the results of finding evidence on Mars so often do? What exactly has the ISS done for anyone lately? Our failure to be on time and on budget has got to be annoying our international collaborators. Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m not really sure what weâ€šÃ„Ã´re learning, and I try to stay up to date on this stuff. I do think we need to replace the shuttle, but before we go building heavy-lift, Moon and Mars heading vehicles, shouldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t we be asking, what do we need people doing in space? The Mars Rovers have demonstrated that we can reprogram robots to do new things from great distances. People are great construction workers. We can repair things really really well. Having the ability to go into orbit, grab a satellite and fix or update it is really useful. I can totally get behind that type of a project. But, we canâ€šÃ„Ã´t take a person and put it in a parking orbit like we did with Stardust, and spend a few months trying to figure out what to do next.
But NASA is gearing up to make fewer StarDusts and to spend my tax dollars putting people on Mars. I don’t like this, so what can I do? Well, I can sign petitions, like the one put together by the Planetary Society, and I can write my congressional representatives. And I can ask you to think about what you feel NASA, ESA, or any other tax dollar spending space agency should be doing, and once informed, write to let the people spending your tax dollars know what you think they should be doing.
Space is the last great frontier, and while I donâ€šÃ„Ã´t advocate filling it with garbage, I like to thinking that we are slowly decorating our corner of the universe with bits of science gleaning flying metal bits.