This is Apollo memory month, when the 50th anniversary arrives of the first landing of astronauts on the moon. It was a very big deal and certainly deserves attention and applause.
But there’s something unsettling about the anniversary as well, a sense that the human exploration side of NASA’s mission has disappointed and that its best days were many decades ago. After all, it has been quite a few years now since NASA has been able to even get an astronaut to the International Space Station without riding in a Russian capsule.
There have been wondrous (and brave) NASA human missions since Apollo — the several trips to the Hubble Space Telescope for emergency repair and upgrade come to mind — but many people who equate NASA with human space exploration are understandably dismayed.
This Many Worlds column does not focus on human space exploration, but rather on the science coming from space telescopes, solar system missions, and the search for life beyond Earth.
And as I have argued before, the period that following the last Apollo mission and began with the 1976 Viking landings on Mars has been — and continues to be — the golden era of space science.
This image of Curiosity, which is now exploring an area that has been named Woodland Bay in Gale Crater, helps make the case.
Taken on May 31 by the HiRISE camera of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it shows the rover in a geological formation that holds remains of ancient clay. This is important because clay can be hospitable to life, and Curiosity has already proven that Mars once had the water, organic compounds and early climate to support life.
The MRO orbits between 150 and 200 miles above Mars, so this detailed image is quite a feat.
Curiosity landed on Mars for what was planned as a mission of two years-plus. That was seven years ago this coming August.
The rover has had some ups and downs and has moved more slowly than planned, but it remains in motion — collecting paradigm-shifting information, drilling into the Mars surface, taking glorious images and making its way up the slopes of Gale Crater. … Read more