Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most innovative space science being done on the planet is happening right in our backyard. Well, this Friday, May 4, is National Space Day — and so I thought it would be a good time to check in with some of those big local space brains to find out what they are working on and looking forward to out there in the great beyond.
I started my survey with one of the few people on the planet who has actually spent time in space: former NASA astronaut and MIT professor in the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics Jeff Hoffman.
"Space is already a part of everybody’s life, even though they don’t realize it," he said. "And it’s just gonna be more so in the future."
What has Hoffman most excited in the near future is the launch of NASA's next Mars rover in 2020. He’s currently hard at work on an experiment that will be aboard that mission.
"For the very first time, we’re going to produce oxygen on the surface of Mars using local Mars resources," said Hoffman. "We'll take it out of the carbon dioxide in the Mars atmosphere. And that’s a prelude, eventually — someday — to human exploration."
Mars is just a short hop compared to where Hoffman’s MIT colleague Richard Binzelhas his eyes these days. Binzel is on the team of a mission that made quite the splash with some stunning picturesa few years back.
"Our New Horizons spacecraft had a spectacular encounter at Pluto, as you may well know," said Binzell.
Since that celebrated flyby of the once-ninth-planet, New Horizons has continued to zip along at 36,000 miles per hour and is on track to ring in the new year with another new discovery.
"This coming January it will encounter an object in the Kuiper Belt, this region out beyond Neptune that contains literally thousands if not millions of small bodies," explained Binzel. "[It's] the first time we’ve ever explored that region of our solar system."
It’s the enigmatic outer edges of our solar system — a little-understood bubble known as the heliosphere — that is Boston University professor Merav Opher’s specialty.
"One of the big questions I’m excited about is the shape of our home in the galaxy," she said. "And we don’t really know."
Key to an answer is the object at the center of it all — the sun — and its solar wind. Opher is jazzed about a probe launching this summer that aims to collect enough data to finally unlock the mystery of how the sun produces that wind.
"It’s going to just kind of fall into the sun, zoom through the sun with a solar shield, take the measurements, and run out," she explained. "And then zoom back again," she added with a laugh.
That this kind of diversity of space exploration is happening is a testament to what Kelly Beatty, senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine, calls the recent "democratization of space."
"This has sort of broadened the pallette of places that you go to [in order] to find out what’s going on in space," he said.
It’s no longer just NASA. The rise of private entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin is driving down the cost of launches, and agencies in countries around the world continue to raise their game.
"And we’re not talking the Soviet Union or Russia here," said Beatty. "We’re talking China, the European Space Agency, with technology that is incredibly forward looking."
Still, space exploration remains an expensive proposition. But it’s one that MIT’s Jeff Hoffman believes continues to pay vast dividends to the world’s economy, from memory foam to GPS. Not to mention a new industry he believes is on the cusp of finally being unlocked — space tourism.
"Oh man, when people get back with their travelers’ tales you’re not going to be able to keep people away," he predicted. "Weightlessness is ... ecstasy."
But much of the work is also animated by something else, something deeper says BU’s Merav Opher.
"Some areas are more philosophical," she said. "Like my area is more poetic, philosophical. There’s no direct applications. It’s touching a very existential question: Are we alone in the universe?"
And, at least for these local space junkies, that’s A-OK, too.
"We do space exploration because we can as a civilization," said Beatty.
"From the moment we start crawling around as infants we are explorers. It’s almost unstoppable," said Binzel.
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Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that National Space Day is Friday, May 4, not May 5.