Our enduring fascination with outer space

The glowing dots in the night sky have enthralled for as long as people could look skyward. Our desire to figure out what makes the stars blaze and why some of the celestial bodies move in strange ways has sparked centuries of conjecture, observation and exploration, from the simple telescope Galileo used to observe Mars in the early 1600s to the new James Webb Space Telescope, a 14,300-pound behemoth with a mirror so big it had to be folded up to fit into the launch vehicle.

Count us here at Science News among those fascinated by space. We’ve covered it from the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble started making his big discoveries, through the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the “space race” that put people on the moon in 1969. Now, increasingly sophisticated robots are independently exploring other planets and even the sun, and reporting back to us here on Earth.

This issue’s cover story celebrates the 25th anniversary of rovers on the surface of Mars, starting with the arrival of tiny Sojourner on July 4, 1997. Three rovers are currently hard at work probing the Red Planet’s surface and atmosphere. Those machines, NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance — the SUVs of Mars vehicles — and China’s smaller Zhurong, are greatly expanding Mars exploration, contributor Alexandra Witze writes. Perseverance is collecting rock samples that future missions can return to Earth. It even serves as home base for the tiny helicopter dubbed Ingenuity that has buzzed around dozens of times, outliving its anticipated life span and delighting its creators and the public alike.

That’s not the only space news worth noting. In July, NASA revealed the first images delivered by the James Webb Space Telescope, and they are mind-blowing. They look back in time more than 13 billion years to reveal swarms of never-before-seen galaxies. The idea of building a giant telescope and shooting it into space was audacious when it was dreamed up in the 1980s. And the project was plagued by years of delays and massive cost overruns. Even after its successful launch in December, scientists and engineers held their breaths, fearing that the craft would fail to complete the complicated task of unfolding its mirror and five-layered sunshield. After all that, seeing these radiant images and knowing there will be many more (and more new discoveries) on the way, it seems worth the wait.

And why stop there? This issue also covers how months in space affect astronauts’ bone health, which is bad news for those of us who would like to travel to Mars and also stand upright afterward. We report the results of the latest efforts to find elusive dark matter. And we also relay how quantum messaging might help aliens communicate with us on Earth. Here’s hoping that they’ll be more like E.T. than like the creature in the Alien movies.

If it feels like there’s an abundance of amazing stuff happening in astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics these days, you’re right. To help you keep up, we’ve launched a space newsletter. Sign up and you’ll get our latest coverage rocketing into your inbox every other Friday.

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.