What projects are in the works at NASA?

NASA. Illustrated | Gettyimages

NASA has a lot in the works, like taking amazing pictures of space and putting humans on the moon and Mars. Below, we take a look at some of the excitement surrounding the space agency.

Artemis mission

Perhaps the mission with the most publicity, NASA's Artemis mission aims to put people back on the moon and "establish the first long-term presence." The project has bipartisan support, as it was created during the Trump administration and reaffirmed during the Biden administration, according to Ars Technica.

The mission is ongoing and takes place in phases. Artemis I took place in November 2022 and tested the safety of NASA's Space Launch System rocket using mannequins in preparation for phase II.

Artemis II is expected to occur no later than November 2024, according to Space.com. The phase will last approximately 10 days when "four astronauts will fly around the moon to test NASA's foundational human deep space exploration capabilities, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, for the first time with crew." The crew includes American astronauts Victor Glover, Christina Koch and Reid Wiseman, and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen.

The next phase of the mission is Artemis III, which "will mark humanity's first return to the lunar surface in more than 50 years," and "make history by sending the first humans to explore the region near the lunar South Pole." This phase is scheduled to take place in 2025. Elon Musk's SpaceX will collaborate on the mission to create the landing system on the moon. Researchers are meanwhile eyeing landing locations, some of which contain water ice that could be of use on future missions.

NASA has also hinted at an Artemis IV, which is expected to take place in 2027. The goal is to "land on the moon while continuing to build out a supporting NASA-led lunar station called Gateway," according to Mark Kirasich, the deputy associate administrator for Artemis campaign development.

Lunar mining

In addition to exploring the moon, NASA hopes to mine the area by 2032. The agency is looking to develop resources on the moon including water, oxygen and eventually minerals like iron.

Part of the goal of the Artemis mission is to set up a pilot processing plant on the moon to excavate resources, for which the first customers are expected to be commercial rocket companies, per Reuters. With the help of the Australian Space Agency, NASA plans to build and deploy a semi-autonomous rover to collect samples from the moon maybe as soon as 2026. "The rover will demonstrate the collection of lunar soil that contains oxygen in the form of oxides," Reuters wrote.

On to Mars

NASA hopes to eventually use the outcomes of the Artemis mission to push humanity to Mars. The space agency is starting with a simulated mission known as the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA), in which four people will live in a simulated Mars-like environment for a year to test the extent to which research can be done, as well as whether people could live and work there. The first simulation began in June 2023, and the last one will take place in 2026, per CNN.

The simulation was created in hopes of filling Strategic Knowledge Gaps, which are "gaps in knowledge or information required to reduce risk, increase effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions," per NASA. In this case, there are four main SKGs that make traveling to Mars high risk: radiation, an eyeball swelling condition that occurs when people spend too much time in low-gravity situations, crew cooperation, and food and nutrition, reported CNN.

While those preparations are in the works, NASA's Perseverance rover has been making discoveries, as well. New images from the rover "show signs of what was once a rollicking river on Mars," and it seems "deeper and faster-moving than scientists have ever seen evidence for in the past," stated NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

James Webb Telescope

Since its launch at the end of 2021, the James Webb Telescope has provided scientists with breathtaking images of space. From the very beginning, the telescope showed "a view the world has never seen before," according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The telescope is responsible for the sharpest infrared images to date, things like color images of galaxies and of star-formation regions like the Pillars of Creation.

Webb's technology also recently discovered water vapor surrounding a comet, though there was surprisingly no carbon dioxide found, as detailed in a study published in the journal Nature. This represents a breakthrough in the search for why Earth has water, something scientists are using the telescope to try and understand. "Understanding the history of water distribution in the solar system will help us to understand other planetary systems and if they could be on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet," explained Stefanie Milam, the co-author of the study. Michael Kelley, the lead author, added that the observations "can now demonstrate that water ice from the early solar system can be preserved in the asteroid belt."

Tracking climate changes

NASA's work isn't limited to space — the agency does valuable work for Earth, as well, especially in regard to tracking climate change. NASA has an Earth-observing satellite with the ability to track carbon dioxide emissions and removal by country. The pilot project was an international effort that included 60 scientists, who published their findings in March 2023 in the journal Earth System Science Data. Tracking carbon emissions was not the initial goal of the satellite, but it provided a unique opportunity. "NASA is focused on delivering Earth science data that addresses real-world climate challenges," said Karen St. Germain, the director of NASA's Earth Science Division.

Another of NASA's satellites also detected early signs of El Niño, the natural phenomenon sending global temperatures skyrocketing. "When we measure sea level from space using satellite altimeters, we know not only the shape and height of water but also its movement, like Kelvin and other waves," explained Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, a NASA program scientist. NASA scientists are also concerned about sand and dust storms, which are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change.

Plane travel

In addition to space travel, NASA is also working to create sustainable travel on Earth. The agency has two programs dedicated to the project: the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project and the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EFPD) project.

For the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, NASA and Boeing are working to develop a full-scale demonstrator aircraft called the X-66A, CNN reported. The project "builds on NASA's world-leading efforts in aeronautics as well climate," NASA's Nelson said in a statement. "The X-66A will help shape the future of aviation, a new era where aircraft are greener, cleaner, and quieter, and create new possibilities for the flying public and American industry alike."

The aircraft is an "experimental aircraft" expected to reduce fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30% compared to today's most efficient aircraft, CNN continued. The agency hopes to run a test flight in 2028. GE Aerospace and magniX are also working to develop a hybrid electric aircraft under NASA's EFPD project. "At NASA, our eyes are not just focused on stars but also fixated on the sky," Nelson remarked.

Updated August 15, 2023: This article has been updated throughout.

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