Whatever happened to the days when astronauts played golf on the moon? Almost forty years have passed since Apollo 17 left the valley of Taurus-Littrow and humans haven’t been back since. Granted, sticking Colin Montgomery on the moon just to swear at a golf ball would seem financially wasteful, and since the last lunar mission in 1972 the money has been put to better uses like investing in superhero movie sequels and wars against nonexistent nuclear weapons. Although the media might have lost interest in Mars, the moon and any black holes that aren’t made in Switzerland, a quick glance at NASA’s website will show you there’s far more happening on the final frontier than you may imagine.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of public euphoria over space is that most current missions go on for years rather than days, and many of these are focused on Earth itself, particularly the state of its climate. Aura, an ongoing mission launched back in 2004, is dedicated to assessing the health of Earth’s atmosphere. Two other satellites, Aqua and Terra, are doing similar investigations into Earth’s water cycle and the general climate respectively. This is important work, but lacks the theatrics of skiing down Olympus Mons or Storm chasing in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.
It’s not all about watching glaciers melt and spying on polar bears. The spacecraft Dawn, launched in September 2007, is a long-term mission with multiple objectives including a survey of Vesta – the second-largest body in the asteroid belt – in 2011, and an encounter with the dwarf-planet Ceres in 2015. In the short term, the craft is expected to fly by Mars around the same time that you read this article.
Another mission on the horizon is of quite astounding scope. Kepler is destined for launch in less than three weeks, intending to survey over 100,000 star systems for planets similar to our own. It will be the first satellite capable of locating distant planets that are the same size or smaller than Earth, which is one giant leap for answering questions about extraterrestrial life.
Satellites and probes aren’t the only things being sent into space either. With the International Space Station (ISS) verging on completion and the space shuttle nearing its admission into the world’s largest old folk’s home, NASA are in the process of developing a new rocket, Ares I, and the crew capsule Orion I. These are projected to take over from the space shuttle on trips to the ISS, but they are also part of plans for a long-term colony on the moon and even a manned mission to Mars. However, this is very much theoretical until both complete rigorous testing, so don’t book your buggy-racing holiday on the moon just yet.
Special mention should be given to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which with an estimated five-year working lifespan are now approaching their thirty-second year in space. Their current mission is to reach the edge of the solar system and be the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, an incredible achievement. In addition, Voyager 2 recently discovered that the solar system is not spherical: rather, it is squashed at its southern hemisphere, changing traditional concepts of how the sun reacts with space and the objects surrounding it.
So while we won’t be flying TIE fighters or warring with the Klingons anytime soon, it might be possible to swing a six-iron in the Sea of Tranquility in the coming decades. Unless you believe the moon landings were faked, in which case you’re an idiot.