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.
Yes, there is water on the Moon.
Twenty years ago, evidence of frost-coated regions near the Moon’s poles was greeted with surprise and skepticism. Ten years ago, a NASA instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 space probe greatly boosted the case for water ice on the Moon. Then two weeks ago, a much deeper analysis of the Chandrayaan-1 data validated the surprise and ended the skepticism: Some permanently shadowed “cold-trap” craters near the lunar poles clearly do contain regions that are up to 30 percent water ice.
Lunar ice could be a precious resource for future explorers, a potential source of drinking water and oxygen as well as raw material for rocket fuel. The Moon’s poles are now beckoning targets for further exploration. There’s also a broader message to the discovery of ice on the Moon. Ice, frost, and snow are ubiquitous all across the solar system. Water ice is especially abundant, but every large world across the solar system seems to have frost of some form–even in the hottest and most unlikely places.
We are living at the greatest moment in history for finding life beyond Earth. We have robots poking and sniffing around on Mars. We have a space probe in the works that will take a close look at Europa, to examine the likelihood of life on an ice-covered ocean world. Above all, we no longer have to wonder if our solar system is unique: We know of thousands of planets around other stars, and it’s clear that the total number of planets in our galaxy alone must number in the billions, if not the trillions.
But with all these rapid advances have come acute intellectual growing pains. It is only natural that people want to know how many of those distant planets could truly support life–to know whether living worlds like our own are common or rare (or unique). The desire for answers runs far ahead of the ability of science to provide them, unfortunately. And so we end up with whiplash conclusions based on the latest speculative study: Red dwarf stars are great places to find habitable planets…or maybe they are deadly. Earth couldn’t sustain life without the Moon…or maybe the Moon is not necessary at all.
I love Pluto. I grew up entranced by this strange little world: What could you be, you rebel that doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules? I even wrote a childhood letter to a local astronomer, offering my homespun hypothesis that Pluto might be a captured fragment of an exploded star. When the New Horizons spacecraft finally revealed the true face of Pluto, I was right there at mission control in Langley, Maryland, to watch the images as they came in.
So I have a lot of sympathy for the Pluto-lovers who were wounded when the International Astronomical Union declared that the 9th planet was not exactly a planet after all, but something called a “dwarf planet.” I also appreciate the sweet irony that the fuss over Pluto’s reclassification stirred up even more interest in the New Horizons encounter. But really, the endless effort to restore Pluto’s planetary status and relegislate the definition of a “planet” is getting tedious. Time to settle this thing.
Life is all about bubbles. Every cell in your body is a bubble, a membrane holding together a miniature world of organelles, ribosomes, and genetic material. Your body itself is another bubble, a skin wrapped around a wet, salty interior that carries a distant memory of the oceans in which our ancestors lived hundreds of millions of years ago. And our entire planet is a bubble, a thin membrane of oxygen-rich air wrapped around a spinning rock warmed by a nearby Sun.
Being able to perceive our reality this way is one of the gifts of spending time with someone like Peggy Whitson, the poetic yet resolutely humble astronaut who has spent 665 days aboard the International Space Station–the longest duration of any American. Her life story is woven into tonight’s final episode of One Strange Rock, an unusual type of nature show that looks back at Earth from the unique perspective of the space explorers who have left it. But what you can see in 47 minutes on screen only scratches the surface of what Whitson has experienced.
On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft swept past Pluto, returning eye-popping images of the dwarf planet and its huge (relatively speaking) moon, Charon. At the time, the best existing images of Pluto showed nothing more than an enigmatic blur. New Horizons revealed a world of astonishing diversity: organics-coated dark patches, ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and methane snows, all in a state of astonishing activity considering the temperatures there are only about 40 degrees above absolute zero.
The scientific bonanza from the Pluto flyby was sweet vindication for Alan Stern, principal investigator on New Horizons. Stern spent decades fighting to make a Pluto mission happen, persisting long after it seemed like a hopeless cause. Teaming up with writer and astrobiologist David Grinspoon, Stern tells the full, thorny story in his engaging new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. It’s a a tale about space science, yes, but it’s also a reminder of what can happen when you refuse to let dreams die.