Space Science

VIPER’s AI assistant

By Keith Button

June 1, 2024

If NASA’s VIPER rover safely arrives at the lunar south pole next year as planned, the race will be on to find water and hydrogen ice before the moon’s winter stops the rover in its tracks. Pausing to debate each leg of its journey would be a terrible waste of time, so operators have turned to artificial intelligence. Keith Button has the story.

China’s MarsBirds tap America’s Ingenuity

By Paul Marks

May 1, 2024

Spaceflight labs in China have devised concepts for Martian rotorcraft, including a quadcopter and an octocopter capable of scouting terrain and gathering samples. The designs could figure into whether China beats the U.S. in the quest to be first to deliver bits of Mars to Earth. Paul Marks analyzed the scientific papers.

Ice breaker

By Keith Button

March 1, 2024

NASA may be years away from taking up a mission to explore the subsurface oceans of the icy moons Enceladus or Europa, but it continues to fund research into promising technologies for getting under the ice. Engineers at a Texas engineering firm last year made a breakthrough on one of the biggest challenges. Keith Button takes us inside the laboratory and field tests.

Bolder than Webb? ‘You’ll never know unless you go!’

January 1, 2024

NASA and its partners should draw on the success of the James Webb Space Telescope, recent bold thinking in astrophysics observatory architectures, and utilization of the latest commercial space practices to reduce cost and schedule while increasing scientific return of the next U.S. Great Observatory. Former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin makes the case.

NASA faces its Mars conundrum

By Jon Kelvey

January 1, 2024

During the years NASA has been planning its Mars Sample Return mission, coders were busy charting an artificial intelligence revolution, while robotics engineers continued making ever more sophisticated machines. Is it time to consider analyzing the samples on Mars instead of bringing the rocks and dirt home to search for organisms or evidence of ancient life? Jon Kelvey asked the hard questions and learned the harsh realities.

250 grams of our history

By Keith Button

September 1, 2023

A lot can go wrong when you’re trying to collect matter from deep space and bring it home. Your spacecraft could crash-land on its target, as a Japanese spacecraft did in 2005. Your capsule’s parachute could fail and the capsule could slam into the ground, breaking into thousands of pieces, as a NASA capsule did in 2004. Keith Button spoke to the team that aims to deliver bits of the asteroid Bennu home on Sept. 24 without any drama.

Science advocate

By Theresa Foley

May 1, 2023

Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate

Cosmic jolt

By Karen Kwon

May 1, 2023

The James Webb Space Telescope has found dozens of previously unknown galaxies, including some that appear to be far bigger than expected for their age. Now scientists are questioning their theories about the early universe. Karen Kwon spoke to astronomers at the forefront of these discoveries.

The comet conundrum

By Jon Kelvey

February 1, 2023

Hollywood loves its comets, but many of those in the planetary defense field are more focused on the threat of an asteroid strike, given the long odds of a comet smashing into Earth. Who is right? Here’s what Jon Kelvey found out.

Martian aviator

By Paul Marks

January 3, 2023

Ben Pipenberg, chief engineer of Mars Helicopter Programs at AeroVironment

Designing Dragonfly, NASA’s Titan explorer

By Paul Marks

September 30, 2022

A planetary lander that can fly to new sampling sites will be able to do far more surface science than a slow, trundling rover. Easy flight in the super-dense atmosphere and ultra-low gravity of Saturn’s cryogenic moon, Titan, makes it the perfect celestial body on which to test the idea. Paul Marks spoke to the team behind NASA’s Dragonfly.

NASA’s next (next) telescope

By Jonathan O'Callaghan

September 1, 2022

NASA is starting to put together plans for a telescope that would launch in the 2040s to image Earth-like exoplanets and, perhaps, finally discover whether advanced life exists elsewhere. Jonathan O’Callaghan spoke to project scientists to learn how the work is unfolding.

NASA rethinks its Mars strategy

By Leonard David

March 1, 2022

A chorus of scientists wants NASA to add small robotic spacecraft to its Mars Exploration Program in a shift from today’s near-total focus on multibillion-dollar rover missions and preparations with Europe to return samples of Martian soil and rocks to Earth. Will these scientists get their way? Leonard David looks at the odds.

How NASA decided Webb was ready: Inside the risk assessment

February 1, 2022

Every do-it-yourselfer knows how hard it can be to declare a project complete. Will another turn of the bolt or brushstroke make things better or worse? That was roughly the choice NASA faced a year before the Dec. 25 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Would more testing close more technical risks in the nearly $10 billion project or create new ones? In the end, NASA decided against more testing. NASA’s Jesse Leitner and Tupper Hyde describe the assessment they performed.

Diving deeper into the final frontier

By Adam Hadhazy

November 1, 2021

The long-awaited start of the James Webb Space Telescope draws close, with the promise of detecting the cosmic dawn and perhaps even signs of extraterrestrial life. Adam Hadhazy explores the key science motivations and goals for what will be, if all goes as planned in December, the largest telescope yet to reach space.

How’s the weather on Mars?

July 1, 2021

On Earth, explorers centuries ago were probably confident about the range of bad weather they’d encounter along their journeys. Future Mars explorers cannot yet say the equivalent. That’s why NASA and others have adopted a strategy of sending weather sensors ahead of the humans. Anni Torri, a senior scientist at Vaisala, the Helsinki-based measurement company, explains what it takes to make a weather sensor space-proof.

Building a new astronomy tool

By Amanda Miller

April 1, 2021

X-rays emitted by black holes, quasars and other features in deep space have a story to tell, but astronomers have yet to fully tune in by examining the polarization of the beams. Amanda Miller tells the story of a space observatory that could do just that after its launch later this year.

Bringing Mars down to Earth

By Adam Hadhazy

August 23, 2020

The United States and Europe are taking their first steps in a yearslong campaign to deliver rocks and soil from the red planet to terrestrial labs for unparalleled examination. Adam Hadhazy takes us step-by-step through the complex, yet in some ways conservative, mission.

Cosmic GPS

By Adam Hadhazy

May 1, 2020

The U.S. Global Positioning System has changed how we operate spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Now GPS is starting to do the equivalent for spacecraft flying beyond the GPS constellation, and someday possibly all the way to the moon, where positioning contributions from other nations could add up to stunning accuracy. Adam Hadhazy tells the story.

More than government work

January 1, 2020

Defending Earth from “city killer” asteroids will require a partnership between governments and the burgeoning commercial space industry. Retired NASA mission planner Don A. Nelson makes the case.

Decision time — NASA’s New Frontiers

By Adam Hadhazy

June 1, 2019

UPDATE: Dragonfly wins. See News story – NASA has limited dollars for exploring the solar system with robotic spacecraft, and it can take a decade to get such a probe to its destination. Careers are made or stalled when NASA selects a proposed mission, which is why the agency’s latest New Frontiers competition is such a high-stakes affair. Adam Hadhazy spoke to the finalists vying for the prize.

Lunar far side comes into focus

By Adam Hadhazy

April 1, 2019

How China’s January landing on the far side of the moon is helping open this neglected other half to science and human utilization.

Digging in to Mars

By Amanda Miller

March 1, 2019

Every square meter of Mars has been photographed from orbit; its dirt has been scooped up and heated to reveal its constituent chemicals; rovers have driven for kilometers. The surface of Mars, though, has never been dug so deep. That is set to change. Cracking the surface of Mars could deliver readings that will upend tenets about planetary evolution.

Imaging a habitable world

January 2, 2019

Scientists are detecting exoplanets daily by the slight decrease in light from a host star as a planet transits in front of it. Photos of such a planet could tell us whether or not we are alone in the universe. Louis D. Friedman and Slava G. Turyshev think they have a solution for delivering this photographic evidence, one that will require a 900 trillion-kilometer journey and applying a phenomenon discovered by Einstein.

Better asteroid alerts

By Tom Jones

October 31, 2018

NASA plans to spend $3.8 million over the next four years adding two telescopes to its asteroid search network to do a more complete job of detecting small objects as they are closing in on Earth.

Quantum promises

By Amanda Miller

September 27, 2018

Precise navigation will be a necessity for safe human exploration of Mars and other celestial bodies in deep space. A pair of experiments about to get underway could change the way this navigation is done, and for the better.

Taking on the sun

By Tom Risen

August 31, 2018

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, now on its way toward the sun, must survive the searing temperatures in the solar corona to unlock the processes driving the solar wind and coronal mass ejections that can harm satellites and electronics on Earth. We spoke to the scientists and engineers behind Parker’s thermal protection strategy.

Destination: Mercury

By Adam Hadhazy

August 31, 2018

The BepiColombo mission to Mercury, getting underway in October, could answer vexing questions about the innermost planet’s core and its Earth-like magnetic field. And the answers could shed light on planetary matters far beyond our solar system.

Drone tech opens door to Mars Helicopter

By Tom Risen

June 6, 2018

NASA’s announcement that it will add a tiny helicopter to its planned Mars 2020 rover came after a series of test flights inside a vacuum chamber proved the feasibility of adapting consumer drone technologies into a craft capable of flying in an atmosphere just 1 percent as dense as Earth’s.

The dreamers

April 30, 2018

A cadre of technologists and entrepreneurs think asteroids could be the linchpin for establishing an entire economy in space

Nuclear nonsolution

March 30, 2018

Detonating a nuclear bomb is unlikely to protect Earth from a far-off asteroid or comet headed our way

Reaching Europa

By Tom Risen

March 30, 2018

The White House wants to steer the launch of NASA’s proposed Europa Clipper spacecraft to a commercial rocket

The case for WFIRST

By Amanda Miller

March 30, 2018

The Trump budget would cancel development of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

Exploration telepresence

By Tom Jones

September 28, 2017

Astronauts in Mars orbit could orchestrate complex exploration of the surface

Course corrector

By Adam Hadhazy

September 28, 2017

Managers of proposed mission hope to protect Earth from giant space rocks

Beating Curiosity

By Leonard David

August 31, 2017

A next generation robotic rover could start rolling across the Mars surface in 2021

Defending Earth

By Michael Peck

February 9, 2017

Should the military have a greater role against wayward asteroids and comets?

An asteroid companion

By Tom Jones

November 21, 2016

NASA planners see opportunities for robotic and human exploration

Planet Spotting

By Adam Hadhazy

July 30, 2016

Delivering photos of Earthlike exoplanets