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NASA: Beyond Curiosity

by Josh Zeisel

Curiosity, the new Martian science laboratory that piqued national interest, is only one of hundreds of science laboratories NASA has flying. Many of these other science vessels are orbiting the Earth either observing the many aspects of our planet or are looking out into space. Some are even floating out in space observing our planetary neighbors or the sun. Two satellites, Voyager I and II, are floating out beyond our solar system escaping the gravitational pull of our sun.

The most famous satellite orbiting Earth is the Hubble Space Telescope. It has been in orbit for 22 years, 3 months, and 22 days taking pictures with a wide array of instruments of distant stars and galaxies. Hubble is an optical telescope, which means it captures visible light. Yet, as we all recall from our physics 2 classes, visible light is only a small band of the full electromagnetic spectrum that includes, x-rays, infrared, ultraviolet, and gamma radiation. These other bands can be captured and processed into images to better understand the universe.

For these reasons, NASA has launched three other space telescopes to complement Hubble: The Spitzer Space Telescope (which captures infrared light), the Chandra X-ray Telescope, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO). Hubble is the only serviceable satellite of the four and since has seen its last service mission. CGRO is no longer in operation, but it was the first satellite to observe gamma ray bursts, some of the most deadly events in space. The four telescopes together helped us understand and discover that there are supermassive black holes in the center of every galaxy, leading scientists to deduce that every galaxy was created around the creation of a supermassive black hole. The use of these different observatories allowed scientists to observe extremely high energy x-rays emitted by black holes leaving a clear picture of a bright supermassive black hole in the center of dim stars.

To learn new things about the sun, the giant nuclear fusion ball feeding Earth energy and life, NASA has launched the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO). The two satellites (as the name leads on) is the third mission in NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probe series and allows 3-D pictures to be taken of the our life ball. One satellite is ahead of the earth in its orbit and the other behind. The duo specifically studies major solar events such as flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). CMEs are events that eject hot gaseous masses from the surface of the sun. They travel away from the sun at around 1 million miles per hour and are extremely dangerous. They are the types of events that would not destroy Earth, but would destroy all of our electronics and major infrastructures. They have hit Earth before and will ultimately strike again. STEREO allows scientists to understand the major dangers of these events and could help develop ways to protect against them when they do occur.

Many scientists believe that water is the essential ingredient for the development of life. NASA launched the Aqua space telescope that points back to Earth and studies the water not only on the surface, but the water vapor in the atmosphere and the precipitation levels that falls. It maps all the snow and ice on the surface and how it melts and moves throughout the year. Aqua can also measure particles that are in the atmosphere that make up dust that helps form clouds or ozone and greenhouse gases. These measurements help scientists better understand the progression of global warming (y’know, if it is even real).

Many other terrestrial facing satellites focus on the motion of water in the atmosphere or weather. Satellites like Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and CloudSat map clouds, precipitation, and atmospheric particles, which help create weather maps used by meteorologists every day. Other satellites, like Cluster, measure the interaction between the radiation of solar winds and the magnetosphere, the layer of charged particles that come from the sun and are directed around the Earth by the magnetic field that starts in the Earth’s core and surrounds it. If the Earth’s magnetic field did not exist, these charged particles would destroy the atmosphere and all life would cease. Then there is the satellite LandSat that studies the earth on Earth quantifying the land coverage in the infrared spectrum to better understand global seasonal climate change.

NASA even has satellites orbiting the moon performing much of the same science the earth-facing satellites perform. GRAIL maps the gravity of the moon and takes thermal images to understand its the cooling trend and structure. The moon is incredibly important to the everyday processes on Earth and to the development of life. Understanding the structure can define how the it formed (still uncertain) and what the early Earth was like before and after its creation.

Probably the most interesting set of satellites are Voyager I and II. The original missions of the Voyagers were to make flybys and take amazing first time pictures up close of the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. While the main missions ended the satellites continued to fly past the outer reaches of the Sun’s gravity to study the solar winds in the outer Solar System. The sun has such great influence on the many planets, asteroids, and comets in the solar system that getting a better understanding of how the Sun interacts with these objects can help us learn how the Solar System was first formed.

These are just a few out of hundreds of science laboratories launched into space by NASA. Each of the 17 NASA sites conduct experiments not only in space with the development of these floating science labs, but also on Earth dealing with the climate, flight, and many other sciences. NASA even helps us learn about them through their apps and social streams. Unlike many other publicly funded entities it is easy to know what NASA does because they want you to know. So humor them. It may pique your interest.

Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video


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Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]