What We're Learning from NASA

October 7, 2022
Science Magazine

From the first steps on the Moon to Twitter livestreams of Mars rover launches, generations of Americans have grown up watching NASA missions change the world. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has doubtless seen many successes, but it has also had its fair share of failures. Reliant on funding from the ever-changing hands of the federal government, the agency has had difficulty initiating and sustaining projects in the past, including a proposed moon base and a journey to Mars. Projects as grand and complex as NASA’s often require four or five years to get off the ground — just enough time for another president to take office and shake things up. The organization has faced much criticism for its perceived leisurely pace of research and development; however, we now seem to be in one of those rare synergistic periods when great funding and great science collide. Consistent government funding of several NASA projects over the past five years has enabled scientists and engineers to make progress on some of the most pioneering and visionary projects the field of space exploration has ever seen. Let’s talk about some of them.

Seen Below: Overlay image of the Phantom Galaxy (M74) captured by the James Webb Space Telescope in infrared light and the Hubble Space Telescope in visible light. Courtesy of NASA.

James Webb Space Telescope

Images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope this year shocked even the scientists who engineered it. Launched in December 2021, the telescope is the first of its kind: a sensitive infrared telescope able to detect carbon dioxide on distant exoplanets, discern traces of the first galaxies ever formed, and capture stunning images of our solar system. The telescope can detect infrared light emitted by the oldest areas in outer space, bringing NASA closer to its goal of visualizing the early universe. Infrared techniques are also used by telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawai’i and the Paranal Observatory in Chile, but these are limited by blurring and warping due to their location on Earth’s surface. The Webb Telescope has no such limits. NASA has released several groundbreaking images of nebulae and galaxies throughout the visible universe, Jupiter’s moons, Neptune’s rings, and the sharpest infrared image of the distant universe in history: the Webb’s First Deep Field.

Seen On Right: Carina Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Among the first images from the Telescope released July 12, 2022. Courtesy of NASA.

DART Mission

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission made headlines this month for successfully deflecting an asteroid’s path for the first time. The project has been in development since 2015. This September, NASA, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, successfully redirected the asteroid Dimorphos by initiating a cosmic car crash — a momentum transfer from the unmanned DART spacecraft to the asteroid. In five years, a spacecraft from the European Space Agency will reach Dimorphous to gather information on its orbit and the crater formed by impact. In the meantime, Bruce Willis can rest easy: next time an asteroid is on course to impact the Earth, we won’t need to call him up.

Artemis Missions

Besides these headliners, NASA has several exciting missions in progress that we’ll surely hear about soon. The Artemis missions, named after the ancient Greek goddess of the moon (and sister of Apollo, namesake of the original Moon missions), have been in development since 2017. They will be the first manned missions to the Moon in half a century and will put the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface. After a series of delays due to a fuel leak and tropical storms, the first mission is slated to launch in October 2022. Four more missions are planned to launch by the end of the decade. In the future, NASA plans to use technology developed for the Artemis missions to launch astronauts into deep space, possibly to Mars or large asteroids.

Seen Below: The Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket prepared for takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Artemis 1 will be an unmanned integrated test of these new deep space exploration systems. This was taken on September 26, 2022, before Hurricane Ian delayed Artemis 1 launch plans. Courtesy of NASA.

Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe mission launched in 2018 and is currently gathering temperature and orbital data on its approach to the Sun’s surface. Thus far, it’s done several flybys of Venus, using gravity assistance from our sister planet to shrink its elliptical orbit around the Sun. The Solar Probe is currently the closest ever man-made object to the Sun, and by 2025, it is predicted to enter the Sun’s outer corona, where it will collect the first direct observations of our star’s magnetic field, composition, and the mysterious phenomenon of solar wind.

Mars Rovers

You may remember the Mars Perseverance rover that launched in 2020 and landed on Mars’ surface in 2021, replacing the much-beloved Opportunity rover three years after its last communication with NASA. Scientists are busy analyzing data on Mars’ surface composition, atmosphere, and geology that the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are collecting. A mission to return Mars samples to Earth is planned for 2023.

Seen On Right: A selfie taken by the Perseverance Mars rover in the Jezero Crater on September 10, 2021. Courtesy of NASA.


NASA is even joining the hunt for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), better known as UFOs. The existence of UAPs was formally acknowledged by the federal government in 2020 with the declassification of unexplained aerial footage by the Pentagon. 

With the passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2022 this August, Congress approved funding for the Artemis Missions, continued ISS operations, and further missions to Mars. It’s safe to say that we can expect more exciting updates about NASA’s projects soon, and Duke Vertices can’t wait to document them all.

Katherine Long

Katherine (Trinity ’24) is majoring in biology and chemistry with a concentration in cell and molecular biology. She is passionate about scientific communication and research and is excited to contribute to Vertices as a staff writer and peer reviewer. When she’s not in the lab or doing homework, she loves to paint, hike, and hang out with the Duke cat.

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