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Why We Explore Outer Space

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the need to explore outer space given the chaos on Earth–COVID, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and climate change.

But experts at a September 23 EMS briefing reminded us of the fundamental goal of space exploration: to gain knowledge and apply it. 

The Artemis Program

Alexandra De Castro, Ph.D, introduced the Artemis Program, which examines the possibility of using the moon as a permanent base. De Castro is the Science and Technology communicator at PASQAL in the Netherlands. She explained that the Artemis Program is “sister” to the famous 1960’s Apollo Program which sent people on the original moon landing. Artemis, on the other hand, aims to create an opportunity for long-term lunar residence.

Artemis 1, the first phase of the program, is a test mission launching in October or November of 2022. Artemis 2 is set to launch two years later with four astronauts, including the first female astronauts making a trip to the moon. Gateway, a prospective long-term space station would orbit the moon. 

Possibilities of New Knowledge

Many big questions remain unanswered about outer space, the final frontier.

But space exploration opens up infinite possibilities for gaining new knowledge. De Castro compared Artemis to Charles Darwin’s H.M.S. Beagle, which bore him towards the discovery and development of the widely-accepted theory of evolution. 

Pierre Janssen and Joseph Norman Lockyer discovered helium when analyzing the sun, indicating that one can find applicable knowledge in space even when we’re not searching for it. Edwin Hubble discovering the Andromeda Galaxy in 1932, leading to the realization that there was much more to the universe than just the Milky Way.

Technology made for use in space has actually helped humans on Earth, added De Castro. Satellite Sentinel-6 now has a climate change monitor that keeps people informed, and robots originally made for the International Space Station are now used in hospitals. Over 20 countries are involved with Artemis in space exploration initiatives that brings humans together, said De Castro. 

James Webb Space Telescope

Marcio Melendez, the Principal Astronomical Optics Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, described the specifics of the James Webb Space Telescope and tools used in space exploration.

The Webb is an extremely sensitive instrument, requiring precise adjustments in order to function. Nobel Laureate John Mather who worked on the telescope, said that “Webb can see the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon,”

It uses infrared and a sunshield with an SPF of 1 million. The use of infrared allows scientists to see through materials such as space dust. In fact, Melendez explained that observing objects in space lets us see the past,  because light takes time to travel. Viewing images that are furthest away helps us understand which galaxies are oldest. Changes in galaxies over time can be determined by comparing images from the Webb telescope to images from Earth telescopes. This is knowledge that we can apply to our own experiences on Earth, said Melendez. 

Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

Nicole Arulanantham outlined the specifics of knowledge derived from the telescope. Arulanantham is a Giacconi Postdoctoral Fellow at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. She said that stars pull in objects around them to increase their mass, which leads to ultraviolet light in a hot, turbulent environment. By sensing ultraviolet light, we can see how much stars grow and learn about what makes them pull in more or less mass.

According to Arulanantham, tracking these stars lets us learn more about planets and their lifespans. By looking at the composition and size of particles of dust, we can learn more about the formation of planets. Arulanatham spoke of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which she described as her favorite part of her job. She explained that by trying to understand which molecules are the building blocks of life, we can speculate where extraterrestrial life may exist. 

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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Avyay Sriperumbudur

Avyay Sriperumbudur is a senior at Gunn High School. He is passionate about political science, the environment, and the law. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and reading.