The tiny 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover just got a mission upgrade. Initially planned as a “technology demonstration” to prove whether or not powered flight was possible in the thin martian atmosphere, Ingenuity surpassed all expectations on the—at the time of writing—four flights it has successfully conducted thus far in its short tenure on Mars. Thanks to that success, Ingenuity will now be put through some additional paces, getting an upgrade from a technology demonstration to an operational demonstration.
As a scientist who works on robots that we send to other planets, I often hear complaints about how much money is spent on “space.” Space is viewed as this futuristic pipe dream, the realm of eccentric billionaires with money to burn. Many don’t see how money spent on “space” has any benefit to humanity, especially with pressing matters like war and poverty here on the ground.
And these are absolutely valid concerns, don’t get me wrong.
But space, like all of science, is thoroughly integrated with our society. Space is here and now. Space is completely entrenched in our everyday lives as Canadians to the point that we don’t even see it. At this very moment, thousands of satellites for everything from communications to navigation to imaging are flying over our heads. And in Canada, each one of us uses these satellites in some fashion an average of 20 to 30 times every single day.
Most people are probably familiar, even if not by name, with the iconic “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble” view of Earth taken by Apollo astronauts on their journeys to the Moon. Apollo 8’s Earthrise, taken on Christmas Eve in 1968, is often referred to as one of the catalysts that led to the environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day. Since then, many other space missions have captured photographs of Earth on their way to their final destinations across the Solar System. In honour of Earth Day, let’s take a look at ten of the most stunning views these spaceships have given us.
Scientists and engineers are nerds who like to have a bit of fun—even when it comes to their spacecraft. Let’s take a look at some of the Easter Eggs they’ve put aboard the rovers and landers on Mars:
Mars is a freezing polar desert. Nearly all of the water there is locked up in ice in the polar caps or surface frost, buried underground, or locked up in the mineral structures within rocks. But some of it exists high in the air as water-ice clouds. The image above shows the latest view of these clouds on Mars, hanging over the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater near dusk on the 3072nd martian day (“sol”) the rover has been on the surface of the Red Planet. These clouds are similar to wispy cirrus clouds on Earth.
This is far from the first time a Mars rover has captured breathtaking views of clouds.
Eric Berger’s new book gives me a whole new appreciation for what Elon Musk and all of the talented engineers at SpaceX have managed to achieve.
The commercial space landscape has come a long way in the past decade. Ten years ago, SpaceX barely had any successful launches under their belt. The Space Shuttle was about to retire, and I doubt anyone around at the time would have guessed that the next time humans launched into space from American soil would be aboard a SpaceX rocket, inside a SpaceX crew capsule, only nine years later. Booster landings only existed in the imaginations of engineers, but are now so routinely successful that it’s almost jarring when a SpaceX launch doesn’t have (or attempt) a booster landing.
Eric Berger’s new book Liftoff provides a fascinating and extremely detailed account of the earliest days of SpaceX straight from the mouths of the people that were there.
Any space fans that grew up in the era of Apollo will likely tell you they thought that by the 2020s, we’d have humans living on the Moon and traveling to Mars. Weekend jaunts up to space hotels orbiting Earth would be commonplace, and maybe we’d be getting to spaceports in our flying cars.
But we don’t have any of this. As of right now, only 7 “tourists” have been into space. All were launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket coordinated by a U.S.-based company called Space Adventures (who prefers the term “private astronauts” rather than “space tourists”). These flights included a 10-ish-day stay on the International Space Station and came with estimated price tags of $20 million USD or more—definitely not within financial reach of most of us here on Earth.
I resisted the idea of this for years, but I’ve finally come to terms with it.
When I was a child, I was a pretty normal kid in terms of physical activity. Growing up mostly before the age of home internet, all we had at our house was a Commodore 64 that my dad could only sporadically get to work. This meant my younger sister and I spent a lot of time playing outside. In grade 5, I was on the local basketball team—chosen specifically because I thought it would be unexpected of me as the shortest person in my grade (which is also why I chose to play trombone the same year). Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t great at basketball and so in grade 6, I switched over to softball after being inspired by the Mariners nearly making it to the World Series. From about age 7, I’d also been an avid dancer. One of my only career aspirations beyond my love of space in my entire life was to become a professional Irish dancer after Riverdance took the world by storm.
But as I entered junior high, everything changed.
The space industry is rapidly growing, with an almost overwhelming array of options to chose from.
At the SEDS Ascension conference today, a student question came up during a panel I was on: If you’re interested in a lot of different things when it comes to space, how do you pick what to focus on?
This is a great question, and one that would have helped me early in my university path in terms of selecting a major. Starting college, I knew I was obsessed with Mars, and so I went into astronomy because planets are in space. It wasn’t until the end of my junior year that I realized I should’ve majored in geology to study Mars. While I don’t regret the time I spent in astronomy—I still learned a lot of interesting and useful stuff—it would’ve definitely saved me some time and energy to have gone directly into geology!
NASA’s Perseverance rover carried an Easter egg onboard: A family portrait showing the evolution of our wheeled avatars on the Red Planet. What have these rovers taught us?
Building upon the article I posted about the pyramid scheme of academia, let’s get into some specific non-academic career options if you are studying space-related fields.
This list is U.S.-centric, but there are likely analogues to each option in many other countries as well. Please note that none of the companies or entities mentioned in this article are meant as an endorsement, and are provided for informational purposes only.
NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars today with the goal of searching for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet. But exploring Mars is important beyond just the search for alien life.