NASA Gives us an Update on its Long-term Plans for the Moon and Mars

NASA's plans for exploration of the Moon and Mars are a unified architecture covering all mission, crew, and technology contigencies. Image courtesy NASA.
NASA's plans for exploration of the Moon and Mars are a unified architecture covering all mission, crew, and technology contigencies. Image courtesy NASA.

Going to Mars is a major step in space exploration. It’s not a quick jaunt nor will it be easy to accomplish. The trip is already in the planning stages, and there’s a good chance it’ll happen in the next decade or so. That’s why NASA and other agencies have detailed mission scenarios in place, starting with trips to the Moon. Recently, NASA updated its “Moon to Mars Architecture” documents, including a closer look at some key decisions about Mars exploration.

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The Moon is Still Shrinking, Explaining Why it Still Has Landslides

Artemis mission landing locations near the South Pole of the Moon. Blue boxes indicate selected landing spots, while small red marks are locations of scarps caused by moonquakes. Credit: NASA/ LRO/ LROC/ASU/ Smithsonian Institution
Artemis mission landing locations near the South Pole of the Moon. Blue boxes indicate selected landing spots, while small red marks are locations of scarps caused by moonquakes. Credit: NASA/ LRO/ LROC/ASU/ Smithsonian Institution

Although our Moon formed 4.5 billion years ago, it’s still evolving. The interior continues to cool and its orbit is slowly changing. As a result, the Moon has lost 150 feet of its circumference. That shrinkage contributes to near-constant moonquakes, and those trigger landslides and other surface changes. The Moon is currently uninhabited, but all that activity threatens future Artemis landing sites and missions at the South Pole.

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This is the Oldest Black Hole Ever Seen

A view of the galaxy GN-z11, which harbors the oldest known black hole in the Universe. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University)
A view of the galaxy GN-z11, which harbors the oldest known black hole in the Universe. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University)

There’s an incredibly ancient black hole out there that’s challenging astronomers to explain how it could exist only 400 million years after the Big Bang. It’s at the heart of a galaxy called GN-z11. Astronomers using JWST saw evidence of it gobbling up that galaxy, which is one way a black hole can grow.

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Diamond Rain on Ice Giants Could Influence Their Magnetic Fields

Scientists created a model to explain how diamond rain falls inside Uranus and Neptune and messes with their magnetic fields. Courtesy SLAC.
Scientists created a model to explain how diamond rain falls inside Uranus and Neptune and messes with their magnetic fields. Courtesy SLAC.

Imagine Jupiter with a diamond core the size of Earth. That’s what science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke described in his novel (and movie) 2010: Odyssey 2. Now, imagine the same thing, but at Uranus and Neptune. In addition to a possible diamond core, diamond rain fills the interior. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory think they know how these diamonds form on ice-giant planets.

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A Primordial Dark Matter Galaxy Found Without Stars

An artistic concept of hydrogen gas observed in galaxy J0613+52. The colors indicate the rotational action of gas relative to us. Courtesy: STScI POSS-11, NSF/GBO/P. Vosteen.
An artistic concept of hydrogen gas observed in galaxy J0613+52. The colors indicate the rotational action of gas relative to us. Courtesy: STScI POSS-11, NSF/GBO/P. Vosteen.

There’s a galaxy out there without apparent stars but largely chock full of dark matter. What’s that you say? A galaxy without stars? Isn’t that an impossibility? Not necessarily, according to the astronomers who found it and are trying to explain why it appears starless. “What we do know is that it’s an incredibly gas-rich galaxy,” said Green Bank Observatory’s Karen O’Neil, an astronomer studying this primordial galactic object. “It’s not demonstrating star formation like we’d expect, probably because its gas is too diffuse.”

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Black Holes and Neutron Stars are Finally Linked to Supernovae

A star in a binary system dies in a catastrophic explosion. Such supernovae often result in neutron stars or black holes. Courtesy ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression is based on the aftermath of a supernova explosion as seen by two teams of astronomers with both ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT). The supernova observed, SN 2022jli, occurred when a massive star died in a fiery explosion, leaving behind a compact object — a neutron star or a black hole. This dying star, however, had a companion which was able to survive this violent event. The periodic interactions between the compact object and its companion left periodic signals in the data, which revealed that the supernova explosion had indeed resulted in a compact object.

Everybody knows that the explosive deaths of supermassive stars (called supernovae) lead to the creation of black holes or neutron stars, right? At least, that’s the evolutionary path that astronomers suggest happens. And, these compact objects exist throughout the Universe. But, no one’s ever seen the actual birth process of a neutron star or black hole in action before.

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Hubble Shows That a Fast Radio Burst Came From a Giant Group of Galaxies

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the host galaxy of an exceptionally powerful Fast Radio Burst, FRB20220610A. Hubble’s sensitivity and sharpness reveals a compact group of multiple galaxies that may be in the process of merging. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, STScI, Alexa Gordon (Northwestern University)
A Hubble Space Telescope image of the host galaxy of an exceptionally powerful Fast Radio Burst, FRB20220610A. Hubble’s sensitivity and sharpness reveals a compact group of multiple galaxies that may be in the process of merging. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, STScI, Alexa Gordon (Northwestern University)

Way back when the cosmos was only five billion years old, a powerful explosion happened in a group of young galaxies halfway across the Universe. It sent out a blast of radiation from one member of that distant galaxy group.

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Another Example of a Fantastic Einstein Ring

The gravitationally lensed galaxy HerS J020941.1+001557 (red ring) has its imaged distorted by the gravitational effect of a foreground galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, H. Nayyeri, L. Marchetti, J. Lowenthal; CC BY 4.0
The gravitationally lensed galaxy HerS J020941.1+001557 (red Einstein ring) has its imaged distorted by the gravitational effect of a foreground galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, H. Nayyeri, L. Marchetti, J. Lowenthal; CC BY 4.0

The most evocative astronomy images take us across space and time to stars and galaxies billions of light-years away. Nestled at the center of this one, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a collection of three galaxies. They’re not all that close together, although they appear to be in this image. What’s fascinating about this image is that it’s a fine example of an Einstein gravitational ring—and its discovery was enabled by members of the public!

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Uranus and Neptune are Actually Pretty Much the Same Color

Scientists reprocessed Voyager 2 images to get the "true" colors of Uranus and Neptune. Turns out they're a pretty blueish-green. Courtesy NASA/Irwin, et al, Anton Pozdnyakov.
Scientists reprocessed Voyager 2 images to get the "true" colors of Uranus and Neptune. Turns out they're a pretty blueish-green. Courtesy NASA/Irwin, et al, Anton Pozdnyakov.

In the late 1980s, the Voyager 2 spacecraft snapped the “canonical” up-close images of Uranus and Neptune. In those views, Uranus was a pretty greenish-blue and Neptune appeared a deep azure color. It turns out that both planets are pretty close in color: a greenish-blue more akin to Uranus’s appearance.

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Hubble Watches an Exoplanet Atmosphere Change Over Three Years

An artist impression of Tylos, also known as WASP-121 b. It has a hot exoplanet atmosphere that seems to be changing over time. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, Q. Changeat et al., M. Zamani (ESA/Hubble
An artist impression of Tylos, also known as WASP-121 b. It has a hot exoplanet atmosphere that seems to be changing over time. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, Q. Changeat et al., M. Zamani (ESA/Hubble)

If you want to know more about an exoplanet atmosphere, watch how it changes over time. That’s the mantra of a group of astronomers who just reported on conditions at Tylos, otherwise known as WASP-121 b.

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