TIME space travel

NASA Mars Rover Breaks Driving Record

Mars Rover
An artist's rendering of NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover NASA/AP

Opportunity Mars Rover has driven 25 miles and surpassed expectations since it reached the planet in 2004

NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover has set a new record for the longest off-Earth driving distance, the administration announced.

Opportunity has driven 25 miles since it arrived on Mars in 2004. It crossed the milestone after a 157-foot drive on Sunday.

“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance,” John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager, said in a statement. “But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

Opportunity is traveling along the rim of the Endeavor Crater, where NASA has gathered evidence of ancient water supply that was less acidic than those studied elsewhere on the planet.

As the rover approached this milestone, the team behind it named a 20-foot-wide Mars crater after the previous record holder, the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2, which drove 24.2 miles on the moon in 1973.

TIME Environment

Satellites Show Major Southwest Groundwater Loss

A new report suggests that large swaths of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin have been depleted

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves, according to a new study released Thursday that used NASA satellites.

Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine say their study is the first to quantify how much groundwater people in the West are using during the region’s current drought.

Stephanie Castle, the study’s lead author and a water resource specialist at the University of California, Irvine, called the extent of the groundwater depletion “shocking.”

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of how much water we actually depleted” in the West, Castle said.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado River basin — the largest in the Southwest — has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons, of water. That’s enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year, or nearly fill Lake Mead — the nation’s largest water reservoir — twice.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, the study found.

Unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water, groundwater sources can become so depleted that they may never refill, Castle said. For California and other western states, the groundwater depletion is drawing down the reserves that protect consumers, farmers and ecosystems in times of drought.

“What happens if it isn’t there?” Castle said during a phone interview. “That’s the scary part of this analysis.”

The NASA and University of California research used monthly gravity data to measure changes in water mass in the basin from December 2004 to November of last year, and used that data to track groundwater depletion.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water-allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico, Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the study and senior water-cycle specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The Colorado River basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — as well as to people and farms in part of Mexico.

California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers, is three years into drought. While the state has curtailed use of surface water, the state lacks a statewide system for regulating — or even measuring — groundwater.

TIME space

Here’s the Solar System’s Weirdest-Looking Comet

The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away.
The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away. ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are like movie stars—always more glamorous with their makeup on. A new spacecraft is about orbit and land on what might be the homeliest one ever

A comet has a lot to hide. To most people, it’s among the most glamorous objects in the solar system—brilliantly illuminated, racing through space with its glowing tail streaming far behind it. That, at least, is how comets look from great distances, and only when they’re close enough to the sun for the outward-flowing solar wind to light them up and produce those signature tails.

But deeper in space, without the solar floodlights? Not so much. There the comet reveals itself for what it is: a dirty snowball of ice and rock and not a whole lot more. There may be no comet for which that’s truer than the one known unlyrically as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as this GIF made up of images taken by the fast-approaching Rosetta spacecraft reveals. The comet is a lumpy, two-lobed body, measuring about 1.8 mi by 3 mi. (3×5 km), which one astronomer compares to a rubber ducky, and most other folks would describe as just plain ugly.

But Rosetta is an anxious suitor all the same. The spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, has been en route since its launch in 2004. Rosetta will rendezvous with the comet on August 6 and enter orbit around it shortly there after. In November, it will dispatch a small lander down to its surface—becoming the first spacecraft to master either of those maneuvers, never mind both.

The comet may never be much to look at up close, but the science it could yield—offering astronomers their closest ever look at one of the oldest artifacts of the ancient solar system—could more than make up for that. Appearance has never been everything—and in the case of a historic mission like this one, that’s truer than ever.

TIME Outer Space

What’s Next For NASA? Asteroids!

NASA aims to continue their space exploration with their Asteroid Redirect Mission.

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NASA has not sent astronauts to the moon since 1972. While that remains a historic event, President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation Program back in 2010 ended hopes indefinitely of the United States returning to the moon any time soon.

Still, that program’s death did not mark the end of NASA’s work and planetary exploration overall. The agency is currently working on its next target: catching an asteroid, pulling it into the moon’s orbit and sending astronauts to its location in order to study it.

The purpose of the mission, according to NASA, is for planetary defense, as the Earth has had instances of asteroid interference in very recent history. Scientists claim that in changing the orbit of an asteroid and studying its composition, Earth could protect itself from another asteroid crashing into its atmosphere.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission, should it be successful, could also be used as a testing ground for a possible mission to Mars in the near future.

TIME space

Chandra Observatory: 15 Years of Glorious Pictures

Human eyes don't know half of what they're missing. But the Chandra Observatory, with its x-ray vision, gives us a stunning peek.

You’ll never see the universe as beautifully as the Chandra Observatory can see it. That’s because Chandra—which is celebrating its 15th anniversary in high-Earth orbit—sees in x-ray frequencies and you don’t. It’s a pity, actually that we’re blind in that bandwidth, because so much of the cosmos makes itself known there. Signals coming from planets, comets, supernovas, from the dark matter in the vast spaces between galaxies, all emit x-ray energy. The portraits they paint, with false color added to make them visible to our eyes, are more than static snapshots. They are, instead, pictures of processes: of matter spinning down the eternal drain of the black hole at the center of our galaxy; of galaxies colliding and merging; of the cool gas swirling at the center of the Andromeda galaxy.

Chandra records all of these cosmic processes—bits of history really, since at their great distances many of them played out in the remote past. In its own short life, it has crossed many boundaries in terrestrial history too. The satellite was lofted by the shuttle Columbia in 1999—a ship that was destined for catastrophe just four years later. It left Earth at a time when the World Trade Towers stood; when Barack Obama was an Illinois State Senator, one year away from losing his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; when no one had ever heard of an iPhone. That doesn’t seem like much in a universe whose chapters play out in epochs, not mere years. But for a fragile machine from a fragile planet, 15 long years of exploratory work aren’t bad—especially when the post cards it sends home are so improbably dazzling. —Jeffrey Kluger

TIME space

Apollo 11’s Rarely-Seen Outtakes

For the 45th Anniversary of the moon landing, TIME searched through NASA's archives for these rarely seen images

After 45 years, you’d think there is no picture of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing that hasn’t been seen a thousand times—but you’d be wrong. Like all travelers, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins shot a whole lot of frames, and not all of them were keepers. NASA did keep every one of them, of course. Here a few of that are rarely published—mixed with some of the iconic ones that capture best just how extraordinary that long-ago mission was.

TIME space

45 Years Later: 5 GIFs of NASA’s First Moon Landing

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two people to land on the lunar surface, while their third crew member, Michael Collins, continued to orbit around the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin arrived in the Lunar Module (LM) Eagle, one of three parts of the Apollo 11 spacecraft which also included a Command Module (CM) Columbia and a Command Service Module (CSM) to support Columbia. Approximately six and half hours after a rocky landing, Armstrong and Aldrin exited the LM and set foot on the moon to begin their Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA), with Armstrong uttering his now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In addition to performing several experiments and collecting samples from the lunar surface, the two meticulously photographed every stage of the EVA with specially designed Hasselblad cameras (one of which was actually left on the moon to help lighten the load on the LM as they returned to Columbia).

All of the images taken by Aldrin and Armstrong were scanned and archived, and are available to the public through NASA’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Below, in honor of the 45th anniversary of the moon landing, TIME has assembled 5 GIFs from Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins’ images showing in detail some of the historic moments captured by the Apollo 11 crew.

  • Buzz Aldrin Descends The Lunar Module Ladder

    Buzz Aldrin descends the Lunar Module ladder
    Neil Armstrong—NASA (5); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

    Neil Armstrong took two photos of Buzz Aldrin coming out of the hatch of the Lunar Module, and the four more photos as he climbed down the LM’s ladder and hit the foot pad. Aldrin’s ops antenna is visible in the last frame.

  • Buzz Aldrin Makes a Lunar Foot Print

    Buzz Aldrin's foot print on the moon
    Buzz Aldrin—NASA (3); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

    In this series of three images, Buzz Aldrin photographs the lunar surface before and after making a foot print on it. He had taken his camera off it its RCU bracket and shot these pictures holding the camera in his gloved hands. This 16mm movie camera mounted in his LM window captured Aldrin on film taking these pictures.

  • Buzz Aldrin Sets Up the EASEP

    Buzz Aldrin sets up the EASEP
    Neil Armstrong—NASA (7); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

    In this series of images, Armstrong captures Aldrin setting up the EASEP (Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package). Aldrin has the LRRR (Laser Ranging Retro Reflector) in his right hand, and the seismometer package in his left hand. As of December 2010, the retroreflectors were still being used in conjunction with a dedicated facility at the MacDondald Observatory in Texas.

  • Earthrise Captured from the Command Module

    Earthrise captured from the Command Module
    NASA (8); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

    A view of the Earthrise taken from the Command Module Columbia as it was passing over Mare Smythii. Australia is visible at the left on Earth’s surface, just above the lunar horizon.

  • Apollo 11 Lunar Module Rendevous with Command Module

    Apollo 11 Lunar Module Rendevous with Command Module
    Michael Collins—NASA (13); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

    This series of images captures the Lunar Module approaching the Command Service Module at rendezvous and was shot handheld by astronaut Michael Collins. Earthrise is visible in the last four frames.

TIME space

United Arab Emirates Says It Will Go To Mars By 2021

Mars
Mars Digital Vision/Getty Images

A bold announcement by the United Arab Emirates is more than just an idle boast

The big news out of the Middle East this week is mostly about war and other kinds of tribulation, as it was last week and probably will for weeks to come. War and tribulation, that is, plus a mission to Mars.

According to a report by Reuters, the United Arab Emirates announced it would be creating a space agency by 2021 and sending an umanned probe to the Red Planet—something only the U.S., the USSR/Russian Federation and the European Space Agency have done with any success, while the British, Japanese and Chinese have tried and failed. The jury is still out on an Indian probe, which is currently en route.

So can they do it, or is this just some crazy stunt the UAE hopes nobody will remember when the time comes? The answer: it’s not necessarily crazy. True, the country has no aerospace industry, but a government-backed group based in the Persian Gulf country bought nearly a third of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism company. Moreover, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University, “The UAE has already been active in space with communications satellites and Earth observation satellites.”

They’ve done this, he says, by purchasing both satellites and launch services from other countries, and they’d almost certainly put together a Mars probe the same way. “Most of the technical work and the launch would be contracted out,” he speculates, “but some of the components could be developed internally.” If that happened, and if UAE space agency engineers were in charge of mission control, he says, “they could appropriately claim that this mission was their own.”

Given the UAE’s deep pockets, it’s certainly possible that the country could pull off such a project, which would bring a new kind of prestige to the region. The Arab world did invent algebra and enjoyed a golden age of science for centuries leading up to the Medieval period and many Arabs dream of the return to that kind of scientific ascendancy. Recent, eye-catching projects—including the successful construction of the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest indoor ski resort—hint at inventive potential.

A Mars mission would obviously be a bit more ambitious, but in the end, it’s really just rocket science, which isn’t as complicated as we sometimes tend to think. Still, it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something like this and quite another to do it. After all, in 1969, NASA was similarly talking about our own manned mission to Mars—with astronauts aboard—in what was then the near future. It could be done, said Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer behind that year’s successful Moon landing, by 1982.

But it never happened, and who knows if it ever will? The UAE, aided by expertise from other countries, can certainly get a probe to Mars by 2021, in theory.

Whether they’ll actually do it is whole different story.

TIME space

Now You Can 3D-Print Your Own Stellar Nebula

A new study makes it possible for you to hold one of astronomy's great mysteries in your hands—and understand it better too

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People alive in 1841 understood the Eta Carinae nebula better than we do. They were the ones who were actually around to watch when an enormous star weighing about 130 times as much as our sun erupted more than 7,500 light years from Earth. Maybe if modern astronomers had been on the scene they could have figured out what caused the blast—and specifically why the vast cloud of dispersing matter that makes up the nebula assumed its signature peanut shape.

Still, the good thing about those modern astronomers is that when they put their minds to something, it’s never too late to get some answers. An international team of researchers has just announced that they have done just that, publishing a new study in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that may at last unravel the Eta Carinae mystery.

The investigators did their work with the help of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), conducting elaborate cross-sectional observations of Eta Carinae. These allowed them not only to develop a solid theory about how the star blew, but to create a 3D-printed model of the two-lobed space cloud that came from it.

The model is not much to look at—two irregularly shaped balls of plastic that resemble extracted molars as much as anything else. Still, NASA has made the program necessary for printing your own version of Eta Carinae publicly available. Whether you think it’s display-worthy or not, the model tells a complex story.

The star at the center of the Eta Carinae nebula is actually two stars—a binary pair in perpetual orbit around each other. That had been known for a while, but how—or if—they worked together to shape the nebula was never clear. The international team now believes that the eruption occurred when the smaller star—which measures about 30 solar masses—was at the closest point in its orbit to the larger one. It does not appear that a collision triggered the explosion. That seems to have happened on its own, with the blast beginning at one of the poles of the 130-solar-mass star and propagating across its entire body to the other pole.

But the close approach of the smaller star does seem to have had a powerful influence on shaping the eruptive cloud that resulted—and that star had a lot of material to work with. The larger star, which still exists, is now thought to weigh in at just 90 solar masses; the missing material—about 40 times the mass of our sun—is what we see when we look at the huge cosmic peanut.

Why does any of this matter? Well, it doesn’t, if you take “matter” to mean influencing the well-being of the human species responsible for the finding. But if you mean making that species smarter, explaining to it how some of the universe’s most extraordinary and violently beautiful formations came to be, then it matters indeed—and quite a lot, in fact.

TIME space

See the Supermoon from the International Space Station

The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station.
The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station. Alexander Gerst—NASA


Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted this amazing picture of the above-earth view of a supermoon early Monday, when the moon was still behind the horizon.

Gerst is a German astronaut aboard the International Space Station and among many astronauts using the social media site to share incredible pictures of the view from space. Gerst often uses the hashtag #bluedot, a nod to the iconic image of Earth taken from Saturn. And earlier in July, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted above-earth images of Super Typhoon Neoguri. Three astronauts recently spoke to TIME about life above the earth, read their comments in this week’s issue.

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