Endeavors that have been inspiring us for 60 years.

Apollo 11 lift-off via a Saturn V rocket with Commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Image by NASA.

As far as space missions go, NASA has a long record of successful programs that have helped lift the veil on our solar system — and the universe itself — not only for scientists, but for the general public as well.

From achieving what was thought impossible, to showering us with awe-inspiring images of distant worlds, NASA’s scientific endeavors have filled us with a vast array of emotions — from booming pride, to feeling very special and utterly insignificant.

Let’s look at five of their most remarkable undertakings in chronological order.

Apollo


Singularities, positrons, dark energy, Fast Radio Bursts. Will we ever decipher these puzzling wonders?

eXtreme Deep Field is an image assembled by combining photographs of several thousand galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over 10 years. Image by NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team.

When I think about supernovae, black holes or dark matter, I must admit — they seem unreal. They appear right out of a good science-fiction book.

But as staggering and elusive as these phenomena might be, they are an integrated part of our universe.

Learning about them is not only fascinating, but also enlightening, as they help demystify fundamental principles of the cosmos.

So let’s take a look at a few of those curiosities that are particularly mindboggling.

Black holes — Defying physics


Worlds that elude our imagination.

Composition of exoplanets. Visualisation by Martin Vargic.

Super-Earth, Twin Earth, habitable zone, liquid water.

In the 1990s, when we discovered the first exoplanets — planets outside our solar system –we started frantically looking for a rock similar to ours which could host life, similar to ours.

And that’s perfectly reasonable.

Finding any life out there, even tiny microbes, would be humanity’s biggest discovery yet.

But do you know that there exist planets utterly unlike ours? And unlike any object in our solar system? Planets made of diamonds and planets where it rains glass?

Let’s look at 10 of the weirdest exoplanets we’ve…


Our planet is a lot more special than you might think.

Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay.

The third rock from the Sun, the pale blue dot, the World, home.

Whatever you chose to call it, the fact remains that out of the trillions of celestial bodies in the universe, it is the only one where we’ve ever observed something incredibly special: life.

When scientists look for life beyond Earth, there’s often a lot of talk of liquid water. In fact, we hear so much about it that we could think water is all it takes to get those tiny microbes up and running.

But the…


What is hiding in our neighborhood?

Composite image of Venus taken by Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. Image by NASA.

In September 2020 British scientists revealed they detected phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine is a toxic compound made from phosphorus and hydrogen. On Earth, it’s only produced by tiny microbes that live in oxygen-free environments.

We can’t confirm that phosphine is a sign of life on Venus, but for now, we don’t have a different explanation.

Discovering a possible biosignature on Venus has come as a great surprise for many people. Our closest neighbor is a hellish world with a very toxic atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect.

96% of its atmosphere…


What would it take to reach other stars?

Alpha Centauri A (on the left) and Alpha Centauri B (on the right) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image by NASA.

In 1584 when Giordano Bruno proposed that other stars were distant suns similar to ours and have planets of their own, he was of course right. But he was only guessing. He didn’t have observational data or mathematical formulas to support his theory.

First real evidence of other galaxies came in 1924 when Edwin Hubble realized our neighbor Andromeda wasn’t just a cloud of gas, but an entire galaxy on its own. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that first exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than our Sun — were discovered.


Will dream become a reality?

Illustration of a potential colony on Mars. Image by mic.com.

Laura Lark just signed up for the weirdest mission of her life. This is January 2017 and she has spent the last 5 years as a Google software engineer. But she is about to embark on a whole different adventure.

She and five other “astronauts” will spend the next eight months in a habitat in complete isolation on Hawaiian Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano. The project is called HI-SEAS V and it’s the fifth such mission funded by NASA since 2013.

The goal? Study human behavior and performance, and determine the individual and…


Whose names we forget when we look at the stars?

“Harvard computers” at Harvard College Observatory. Image by space.com.

In 1923 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin completed her studies of astronomy at the University of Cambridge. But she could not get a degree. For one simple reason: she was a woman. In the 1920s England, such a thing as a woman astronomer just didn’t exist.

Think about it: this was only a hundred years ago. Sure, we’ve come a long way since regarding gender equality, but I still bet you don’t know that Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin made one of the biggest discoveries in the history of astronomy.

And she wasn’t the only one…


Hot Jupiters, super-Earths, mini-Neptunes, ice giants. You must have heard of these strange worlds.

Artist’s impression of “hot Jupiter” exoplanets. Image by NASA and ESA.

They make us dream.

They make us burn with curiosity.

They make our mind travel through the galaxy and imagine how they might look like and what they might be hiding.

But have you ever wondered how astronomers detect these distant planets? How do they know their size and composition? Let me take you on a voyage.

Imagine you’re leaving the solar system in the direction of the constellation Aquarius. Flying pass Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, leaving Pluto behind, you are now just a ball of energy…


Illustration of the solar system with sizes to scale. Image by Roberto Ziche.

You don’t need me to tell you that space is humongous. We’ve all found ourselves staring at the night sky in awe of its vastness and wondering what lies beyond the horizon.

Let’s try and understand how vast the universe actually is, so that we can better appreciate that measuring anything in space requires unequalled effort.

Imagine Earth is a ping-pong ball. On this scale, the Sun would be about the size of a Beluga whale and lie roughly four football fields from Earth. The Moon would be a marble just over a meter (4 feet) away from Earth.

What…

Ziva Fajfar

Human | Web developer | Astronomy enthusiast | Animal rights defender

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