In the near future, NASA and other space agencies will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over fifty years. But unlike the Apollo Era, these missions will consist of astronauts spending extended periods on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars (with a few months of surface operations in between). Beyond that, there’s also the planned commercialization of LEO and cis-Lunar space, meaning millions of people could live aboard space habitats and surface settlements well beyond Earth.
This presents many challenges, which include the possibility that the sick and injured won’t have licensed medical practitioners to perform potentially life-saving surgery. To address this, Professor Shane Farritor and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) have developed the Miniaturized In-vivo Robotic Assistant (MIRA). In 2024, this portable miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery (RAS) platform will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) for a test mission to evaluate its ability to perform medical procedures in space.
If you’re a fan of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace), then the name Masten Space Systems is sure to ring a bell. For years, this California-based aerospace company has been developing delivery systems to accommodate payloads to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This included Xoie, the lander concept that won the $1 million Northrop Grumman Lunar X-Prize in 2009, their Xombie and Xodiac reusable terrestrial landers, and the in-Flight Alumina Spray Technique (FAST) that would allow lunar landers to create their own landing pads.
But perhaps their biggest feat was the Xelene Lunar Lander (XL-1) that they developed in partnership with the NASA Lunar CATALYST program. This lander was one of several robotic systems enlisted by NASA to deliver cargo to the Moon in support of the Artemis Program. This included the Masten-1 mission, which was scheduled to land a payload Moon’s southern polar region in 2023. The company was scheduled to make a second delivery (Masten-2) by 2024, one year before the first Artemis astronauts arrived. But according to a statement issued on July 28th, the company has filed for Chapter 11 and is bankrupt!
In 2026, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST) – aka. the “Mother of Hubble” – will take to space and begin addressing some of the deepest mysteries of the Universe. This will include capturing the deepest field images of the cosmos, refining measurements of the Hubble Constant (aka. Hubble’s Law), and determining the role of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the evolution of the cosmos. Alongside its next-generation partner, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the RST will acquire infrared images with over 200 times the surveying power of its predecessor with the same rich level of detail.
On Tuesday, July 19th, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX with a Launch Services (NLS) II contract to provide the rocket that will deploy the RST mission to space. As specified in the NLS II, the launch will take place in October 2026 (May 2027, at the latest) and consist of a Falcon Heavy rocket transporting the RST from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to orbit. This indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract is valued at approximately $255 million and covers the launch and other mission-related costs.
The field of exoplanet study has come a long way in recent decades. To date, 5,063 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,794 systems beyond our own, with another 8,819 candidates awaiting confirmation. In the coming years, tens of thousands of more planets are expected to be found, thanks to next-generation observatories. The ultimate goal in this search is to find planets that are “Earth-like,” meaning they have a good chance of supporting life. This is no easy task, as rocky planets located within their parent star’s habitable zones (HZs) tend to orbit closely, making them harder to see.
To make this process easier, NASA is designing a hybrid observatory consisting of a “Starshade” that will block out a star’s light so that a ground-based telescope can directly image planets orbiting it. The concept is known as the Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE), and NASA is looking for public input to make it a reality. To that end, they have launched the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge, where participants are asked to develop a design for a lightweight starshade structure that could be used as part of the HOEE concept.
This is it! Today, people worldwide were treated to the first images acquired by James Webb! After years of delays, we are finally seeing the sharpest images of the Universe taken by the most powerful telescope ever deployed. The world was given a sneak peek yesterday when President Biden, VP Kamala Harris, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, and other NASA officials released the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the Universe to date. But at 10:30 Eastern (07:30 Pacific), all the remaining first images were released!
On December 25th, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope launched on an Ariane 5 rocket bound for space. After many years of delays, retesting, and cost overruns, the next-generation observatory made it to orbit without any hiccups or complications. What followed was several weeks of deployment as Webb unfolded its arms, sunshield, primary mirror (consisting of eighteen gold-coated beryllium segments), and secondary mirror. By late January, the space telescope had flown to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, where it will remain for the entirety of its mission.
For the past six months, Webb has been collecting its “first light,” which consisted of the deepest field images ever taken, galaxies, the Carina Nebula, and a nearby exoplanet and its atmosphere. The majority of these images will be released starting tomorrow morning (Tuesday, July 12th). To give us a taste of what we are in for, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, and other officials revealed the first of these images today during a White House press conference. The entire event was live-streamed by NASA TV and (as promised) was mind-blowing!
The scientific and astronomical community are eagerly waiting for Tuesday, July 12th, to come around. On this day, the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be released! According to a previous statement by the agency, these images will include the deepest views of the Universe ever taken and spectra obtained from an exoplanet atmosphere. In another statement issued yesterday, the images were so beautiful that they almost brought Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – to tears!
If NASA’s Artemis project to return to the Moon permanently is going to succeed, it will need a lot of power. Shipping traditional fossil fuels up there is impractical, and surface solar cells won’t work for the two weeks that a given side of the Moon is shadowed. So the best option may be to set up a nuclear power station. NASA solicited some ideas along those lines with a preliminary design request for proposal – and they recently announced that three groups would each receive $5 million to develop preliminary designs for surface-based lunar fission reactors.
Its solar panels are caked with dust and the batteries are running out of juice, but NASA’s InSight Mars lander continues to soldier forth collecting more science about the Red Planet until its very last beep. To conserve energy, InSight was projected to shut down its seismometer—its last operational science instrument—by the end of June, hoping to survive on its remaining power until December. The seismometer has been the key instrument designed to measure marsquakes, which it has been recording since it touched down on Mars in 2018, and recently recorded a 5.0-magnitude quake, the biggest yet.
Our Moon is a fascinating world that has captivated us since time immemorial. Long before the first telescope was invented, ancient humans used the Moon as a calendar in the sky, with evidence that lunar timekeeping was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, and even 35,000 years before the present. Long before humanity had written language, lived in organized cities, and worshipped structured religions, the Moon was one of humanity’s first timepieces. It wasn’t until the telescope was invented that our Moon became an object of scientific curiosity, with the sketches by Galileo Galilei giving us a new perspective on our nearest celestial neighbor. As science advanced, so did our understanding of the Moon. While the Apollo missions were successful in teaching us about the geology of the Moon, it wasn’t until 2009 when the LCROSS impact probe onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter deliberately crashed into a dark crater on the Moon’s south pole and detected 155 kilograms of water as it flew through the ejecta plume before ultimately crashing into the lunar surface.