To boldly go where no robot explorer has gone before

Space travel still sounds like just about the coolest thing ever, even though we have learned that it brings with it nausea, sleeplessness, radiation exposure, muscle loss, vision changes, cranky fellow explorers and the challenge of going to the bathroom in zero gravity. And that’s just with the “easy” stuff, like living on the International Space Station. Let’s not even get started on a possible mission to Mars (SN: 11/29/14, p. 22).

Fortunately, we have robot friends out exploring the cosmos for us.

Right now, the Parker Solar Probe is winging its way to the sun’s corona. Once it arrives in November, the probe will study electric and magnetic fields as well as solar wind, the charged particles that flow from the sun. Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman talked to the scientists who figured out how to sling the spacecraft through the sizzling corona without frying it like a crouton . That required plenty of clever engineering and some surprising work-arounds for testing antennas and other gear. Who knew that IMAX movie projectors would be the perfect stand-in for intense sunlight?

Parker joins other recent explorers, including the TESS space telescope, which launched April 18 on a hunt for exoplanets. Then there’s InSight, a lander due to reach Mars in November that will try to probe the planet’s internal activity. OSIRIS-REx is en route to asteroid 101955 Bennu, where it will use a robotic arm to snuffle up rocks and bring them back to Earth in 2023. The goal there is to glean clues to the origins of our solar system.

And those are just some of the newcomers. The Hubble Space Telescope has been beaming down images of space since 1990, while Gaia has mapped more than a billion stars since 2013 (SN Online: 5/9/18). The Opportunity rover has been testing minerals on the surface of the Red Planet since 2004, far beyond its planned three-month mission. New Horizons, which launched in 2006, may have just spotted an ultraviolet glow near the edge of the solar system.

My childhood dreams of rocketing into space will never die, but I’m delighted that these competent, dogged extraterrestrial explorers are also out there, working away in the service of science.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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