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What’s Next in Space Exploration?

space explorationAs we near the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk, Colleen Hartman ’77 believes the next chapter in human space exploration is not far away. “When I talk to high-school and younger groups, I always tell them that I’ll be alive when the first human puts her foot down on Mars, and they always laugh,” she says.

But what brings Hartman to work each day as director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the extraordinary science that continues to be done through spacecraft with no astronauts aboard. As an example, she points to a couple of new spaceborne telescopes that are likely to kick the search for exoplanets—planets circling other stars—into high gear.

Although the number of confirmed exoplanets has exploded into the thousands since the launch of the Kepler spacecraft in 2009, we still know next to nothing about them. With the launch of TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in April 2018 and the planned launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2020, NASA hopes to change that, Hartman says. “Whereas Kepler looked at only a tiny fraction of the sky,” she explains, “TESS will look for extrasolar planets all around our closer neighborhood, where hopefully, we can have follow-up observations with the James Webb Space Telescope.” Those observations, she says, should give us our first detailed analysis of the chemical makeup of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

Other upcoming NASA missions of particular note include:

  • The Parker Solar Probe (Planned launch: August 2018)—This probe’s orbit will carry it to within 3.8 million miles of the sun, which is actually inside the sun’s corona. Able to withstand temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the probe will study such things as the solar wind and mass ejections. “This mission will help us understand the relationship between the sun and the Earth in ways we never could before,” Hartman says.
  • The Wide Field infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST (Planned launch: 2020)—WFIRST will join in the search for exoplanets, but it will also play a key role in the effort to solve the most baffling mystery in astrophysics today. “Approximately three quarters of the universe is made of something we call dark energy, because it doesn’t interact with anything and we don’t really understand what it is,” she says. “WFIRST will be looking for clues about dark energy as well.”
  • The Europa Clipper (Planned launch: sometime in the 2020s)—This probe will investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. “To me, this is one of the most exciting things at NASA,” Hartman says. “When we’re looking for life on other planets, we’re looking for water, but it turns out that here in our own solar system, you can have a frozen icy moon, and under the frozen surface, a liquid ocean. That’s Europa. I like to joke that if there’s life in that liquid ocean, they’re not going to be very good astronomers.”

One thing Hartman says she can’t predict is the practical benefits that will accrue from continued exploration of the solar system and beyond, but she’s sure there will be many of them. “There’s plenty to discover and investigate, and I do think there’ll be a lot of practical output from some of these investigations, but you don’t necessarily know beforehand what the spinoffs will be. It’s serendipitous, and that’s part of the joy.”

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