Thursday, May 19, 2022

From Seas to Stars, NASA Lays Out Exploration Goals

The Failure is Not an Option talk as part of the Virginia Air and Space Museum's Sigma Series Lecture is Tuesday, Oct. 1. (WYDaily/ File photo)
The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. (WYDaily/ File photo)

HAMPTON ROADS — On Wednesday, June 2, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S.A. (NASA) Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson gave his first State of NASA address at the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington D.C. 

In the address, Nelson spoke of several major projects that the agency is spearheading, including the robotic and human return to the Moon through the Artemis Program, future Earth-focused missions to monitor and address climate change, and two new discovery missions to Venus.

The Artemis Program aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. Beginning this year, NASA will send a suite of science instruments and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface through commercial Moon deliveries ahead of human return. 

The program involves several missions: The Artemis I, a flight that will be without a crew, will test the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft together, followed by the Artemis II mission, which will be the first SLS and Orion test flight with crew. 

With the Artemis III mission, NASA plans to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, starting with the lunar South Pole in a mission to explore the entire surface of the Moon with human and robotic explorers. From there, NASA plans to send a mission to the moon about once a year.

Nelson spoke of his personal experience in space and the rare opportunity he had to look down on Earth. 

“As we orbited the earth every 90 minutes, I did not see political divisions. I did not see racial divisions. I did not see religious divisions. I saw that we were all in this together,” he said. 

This is how Nelson transitioned into speaking on NASA’s mission to continue collecting data on climate change.

Introducing plans to create an Earth System Observatory (ESO), Nelson outlined how five satellites would revolve around the planet to study the atmosphere and activity occurring both on and below the Earth’s surface. Using 3-D modeling technology, the ESO would be able to collect data on climate change and help predict natural disasters before they happen. 

“We have a central mission — to protect our planet,” Nelson said. 

That doesn’t mean NASA is halting plans to get out into our solar system more. Nelson also announced two new discovery missions to Venus, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS. 

DAVINCI+ will measure Venus’ atmosphere composition and determine whether the planet ever had an ocean. The mission will also take pictures of geological features to help further NASA’s understanding of the planet. 

The second mission, VERITAS, will have a closer look at Venus by mapping the surface and infrared emissions to figure out the planet’s rock type. Both missions aim to answer many questions about Venus and how it formed into the planet known today. 

What is probably most exciting locally about all these new missions and launches is how they continue to connect Hampton Roads to the “final frontier.” 

Clayton Turner, director of the Langley Research Center, said that the center is critical in developing landing technology, both for landings on the moon and for entry decent landings on celestial bodies with thicker atmospheres, like Mars or Venus. 

“That’s an area where we develop the simulations to model that landing,” he said. “We also do instrumentation, so with each landing we can learn information that will help us with the next landing.”

Concerning creating more sustainable aircraft, another talking point Nelson touched on in his address, Langley focuses on the vehicles. Turner referenced the cartoon, The Jetsons, and the imagery of flying cars, while speaking on vehicles used to transport everything from packages to people. 

“The technology is here,” he said. “Our role is to help integrate those vehicles into what’s already flying.”

Though Turner expressed confidence in the existing technology, he could not provide an exact timeline when the technology would be available to the public, and it all boils down to a lack of public infrastructure to support aerodynamic vehicles. 

This also ties into Langley’s research into super sonic transportation. The development of the X-59, NASA’s Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) will fly faster than the speed of sound, but without the loud, sonic boom. 

The Langley Research Center is also set to open the Measurement Systems Laboratory soon. The lab was originally set to open in 2019, but Turner said they had to get past the pandemic before the lab could do so. 

Artist’s concept of the Measurement Systems Laboratory building at NASA’s Langley Research Center. A contract to build this laboratory — the largest contract awarded for NASA Langley in recent history — was announced on Dec. 1, 2016. (Courtesy of NASA/Langley Research Center)

Another major project soon to launch is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an orbiting infrared observatory with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity that will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

The longer wavelengths enable Webb to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

Basically, NASA will be able to see the beginning of time with the JWST. 

The JWST is set to launch this year near French Guiana. 

And how is NASA able to announce and launch all of these mind-blowing missions and technologies? By making big requests to Congress. 

The agency recently requested a $25 billion budget from Congress for the 2022 fiscal year. NASA had a hearing with the House Appropriations committee on May 19. 

However, as Nelson mentioned during his address, NASA’s advancements aren’t just for the United States, but are part of a global effort to understand more about our planet and how it came to be. 

“Reach for new heights to reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind,” Turner quoted, a statement he has on the back of his business cards and carries close to his heart. 

To watch the State of NASA address, click here.  

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