“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The quote is so familiar that most people have no idea where it originally comes from (I’ll admit, I had to look it up myself to be sure: It is Mediation XVII from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.) In recent years, though, the words have taken on new meaning, at least for those of us who are devoted to astronomical exploration. Any space robot’s death diminishes us as well, it seems.
So it was with the Cassini spacecraft’s terminal plunge into Saturn in 2017; one popular Twitter feed, called @CassiniNooo, was devoted entirely to screaming “noooooo” as the final day approached. And so it was again earlier this month when NASA officially declared the death of the Opportunity rover, which had spent more than 14 years exploring Mars on what was designed to be a 90-day mission. The eulogies were passionate and moving. People also tried to make sense of why they were so upset. They offered a lot of plausible explanations, but I think they missed out on the most interesting one.
It has been a great week for humans banging on things around the solar system. Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe touched down and grabbed a sample of asteroid Ryugu; NASA’s InSight is hammering into the surface of Mars; and a private Israeli spacecraft named Beresheet is heading toward an April landing on the Moon. But we are just beginners at the game. Nature has been banging and moving things around in the solar system for billions of years–and doing it with impressive efficiency.
Case in point: a rock nicknamed Big Bertha, and officially known as NASA catalog #14321. It was collected during the Apollo 14 mission by astronaut Alan Shepard, who picked it out because it contained an unusual-looking fragment. His instincts were spot-on. That chunk of Big Bertha really isn’t like the surrounding Moon rocks, most likely because it did not originate there. According to a study by David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and his colleagues, the fragment actually started out on Earth.
This is the first clear example of terrestrial material traveling to another world–and more evidence of the interplanetary highway running through the solar system.
It was a New Year’s Eve like no other. First of all, the big celebration started a half hour after midnight. Children were waving mini-flags, surrounded by throngs of giddy planetary scientists. And four billion miles away, one billion miles past Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft was flying past an enigmatic object called 2014 MU69–better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule.
When radio signals from New Horizons finally reached Earth the next morning, they revealed that the mission was a smashing success. The first images of MU69 showed that it is a double-lobed object, apparently created from the delicate joining of two primitive planetary building blocks, or planetessimals. It was everything the mission scientists had hoped for. The only thing that felt off about the triumphant event was the object’s name: not only because some people objected to the Nazi mythology attached to Ultima Thule, but because of the name’s literal meaning of “beyond the known world.”
The moment that New Horizons reported back, MU69 became part of the known world. The probe had lived up to its name, pushing back the horizon of human understanding, so that it can be pushed back farther, again and again, in the future. There is no final frontier anywhere in sight, and that is what truly made the New Year’s encounter so exciting.
Novelists have “It was a dark and stormy night.” For planetary scientists, the equivalent cliche is, “We expect to be surprised.” The story of every new space mission seems to begin that way. No matter how intensely researchers study some solar-system object, no matter how they muster the best resources available on Earth, they are inevitably caught off-guard when they get to study it up close for the first time. And no matter how worn and familiar that cliche may sound, it also rings true every time. Nature’s creativity surpasses human imagination, time after time.
Even by those standards, the flight of the New Horizons probe past Ultima Thule tonight is something special. In the words of Alan Stern, the mission’s principle investigator and spiritual leader, “We’ve never, in the history of spaceflight, gone to a target we know less about.” It’s a type of object never seen up close before, a small (30 kilometers wide) member of the Kuiper Belt. Even more exciting, it belongs to the so-called “cold classical” region of the Kuiper Belt, meaning that it probably has remained largely unchanged for more than 4 billion years, frozen in deep storage 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun.
Will it look battered from ancient collisions? Will it be covered with organic molecules from the early solar system? Will it resemble Pluto’s moons, or look like a fresh comet, or like something else entirely? Nobody knows.
Some two billion years ago, the first photosynthetic algae evolved the ability to respond to light—the brilliant Sun by day, the spectral Moon by night. Around 700 million years ago, primitive eye-pits appeared; then, during the Cambrian era, arthropod-like creatures gazed at the sky through true eyes, sensing the lunar rising and setting with their arthropod-like comprehension. So it continued, into the succeeding chapters of life featuring mammals, primates, hominins, and Homo sapiens, the last of them plotting the Moon’s movements and mapping the pockmarked terrain of Earth’s companion.
Then, 50 years ago, the perspective flipped. Apollo 8 took off on a figure-eight pattern around the Moon and, on December 24, 1968, three NASA astronauts peered out at the first Earthrise in the history of life. Most of the reminiscences now popping up across the media focus the Earth itself, seen gibbous and gorgeous from afar. But the true power of the image comes from its juxtaposition of two views never seen before: our blue planet, wrapped with air and water and hope, contrasted with the extraordinary gray desolation of the Moon.
Many years ago, this magazine was owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, and I would sometimes get one of the company’s songs stuck in my head: “It’s a Small World,” the relentless musical accompaniment to the ride of the same name at Disney World in Florida. That song has popped up in my brain again recently, but in a very different and more majestic context. We are entering a new stage in the exploration of the solar system, one that inverts the theme of much that came before. Big is out and small is in.
The hot destinations in space right now are comets and asteroids–including asteroid Bennu, now coming into view of the ambitious OSIRIS-REx probe. The most innovative robotic explorers are the size of a briefcase. And in NASA’s latest pivot, the long-term plan to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars is set to begin on a decidedly modest scale, with a set of low-budget, privately built lunar explorers. Cue the mental music: “It’s a Small Solar System (After All).”
Mars the planet is a unique world: a little like Earth, a little like the Moon, but entirely a world unto itself. Mars the television show is similarly one of a kind, an unusual amalgam of scripted science fiction and serious science documentary. The fictional part of the story begins in 2033, when the spacecraft Daedalus lands on the Red Planet to establish the first human outpost there. But as so often happens in space exploration, things don’t go exactly as planned…
Season 1 of Mars was an intriguing experiment in world-building: The scripted part of the series painted a plausible portrait of how a crewed Mars mission might unfold, accidents and all, while the documentary portion grounded the story with commentary by marquee-name experts including astronaut Scott Kelly and SpaceX rocket guru Elon Musk. If the two halves didn’t entirely mesh, they at least bolstered each other. The interviews provided a reality check for the storytelling, while the dramatic elements emphasized what is really at stake. Season 2, debuting now, admirably builds on that foundation.
First Man is not like other movies about the space race, and I mean that in a very good way.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the director of La La Land telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon. (Would there be songs? A scowling J.K. Simmons?) It turns out to be a synergistic pairing of artist and material. First Man brushes aside the expected saga of space cowboys saddling up their steel horses, delivering instead a moving narrative of NASA’s glory days as seen through Armstrong’s eyes.
That’s an especially impressive achievement given Armstrong’s famously private and controlled personality. Director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling (as Armstrong) use that reticence to their advantage, examining the personal, emotional, and intellectual rigor that made the Apollo 11 triumph possible. It all adds up to a nerve-wracking and fabulously engrossing story, but at times I wondered how closely it aligned with reality. So I spoke with Al Worden, the Command Module pilot on Apollo 15, who knew Armstrong and also served as a technical advisor on the film. Worden strongly validated the authenticity of First Man. He also offered a lot of unexpected insights along the way.
The MASCOT has landed.
As of two weeks ago, humans had never put a single robotic explorer on an asteroid. Now we have three of them hopping about on Ryugu, a 900-meter-wide object currently orbiting on the other side of the Sun. On September 20, Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped two little landers, MINERVA II-1a and II-1b. They promptly sent back dizzying images from the surface. Then last night (October 3), the mothership deployed MASCOT, a much larger rover that is now performing a battery of studies during its rushed, 16-hour lifespan. A fourth rover and sample collection are yet to come.
What we are witnessing here is not just a single spectacular mission (though Hayabusa2 certainly is), but the beginning of a new era of solar system exploration. When the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in 2015, that marked the end of humanity’s initial reconnaissance of the nine classical planets and the beginning of a closer look at the little-explored small objects that hold so much information about the formation and evolution of the solar system, and perhaps about the emergence of life on Earth.
When I was 16, I participated in the Montgomery County, Maryland science fair. My entry was–as I recognized even at the time–a fairly middling effort, more a research project than an original experiment. I was not surprised when I walked away with an appropriately middling “honorable mention” in my category. It was an inspiring experience anyway, for reasons that are perceptively captured in the marvelous new documentary Science Fair.
The culture of the science fair is one of profound optimism, marked by a sense of common purpose more than a sense of competition. I was certainly a little jealous of the more ambitious projects I saw all around me, but mostly I was awed by the brainpower on display, the vast range of problems that kids my age were trying to solve (or at least to understand a little better). Science Fair, the movie, fully embraces these themes as it follows nine budding researchers from around the world working their way to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the largest competition of its kind.