What is NASA working on?

 NASA rocket illustration.
NASA rocket illustration.

NASA has a lot in the works, like taking amazing pictures of space and putting humans on the moon and Mars. Below, we take a look at some of the excitement surrounding the space agency.

Artemis mission

Perhaps the mission with the most publicity, NASA's Artemis mission aims to put people back on the moon and "establish the first long-term presence."

The mission is ongoing and takes place in phases. Artemis I took place in November 2022 and tested the safety of NASA's Space Launch System rocket using mannequins in preparation for phase II.

NASA has also been funding private companies to create lunar landers to be tested prior to humans making the attempt. For example, the Peregrine, created by the company Astrobotic Technology was launched in January 2024, but is likely not going to make it to the moon because of a critical propellant loss.

Artemis II is expected to occur in September 2025, according to Reuters. The phase will last approximately 10 days when "four astronauts will fly around the moon to test NASA's foundational human deep space exploration capabilities ... for the first time with crew."

The next phase of the mission is Artemis III, which "will mark humanity's first return to the lunar surface in more than 50 years," and "make history by sending the first humans to explore the region near the lunar South Pole." This phase is scheduled to take place in 2025. Researchers are meanwhile eyeing landing locations, some of which contain water ice that could be of use on future missions.

NASA has also hinted at an Artemis IV, which is expected to take place in 2027. The goal is to "land on the moon while continuing to build out a supporting NASA-led lunar station called Gateway," according to Mark Kirasich, the deputy associate administrator for Artemis campaign development.

Lunar mining

In addition to exploring the moon, NASA hopes to mine the area by 2032. The agency is looking to develop resources on the moon including water, oxygen and eventually minerals like iron.

Part of the goal of the Artemis mission is to set up a pilot processing plant on the moon to excavate resources, for which the first customers are expected to be commercial rocket companies, per Reuters. With the help of the Australian Space Agency, NASA plans to build and deploy a semi-autonomous rover to "demonstrate the collection of lunar soil that contains oxygen in the form of oxides," maybe as soon as 2026.

On to Mars

NASA hopes to eventually use the outcomes of the Artemis mission to push humanity to Mars. The space agency is starting with a simulated mission known as the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA), in which four people will live in a simulated Mars-like environment for a year to test the extent to which research can be done, as well as whether people could live and work there. The first simulation began in June 2023, and the last one will take place in 2026, per CNN.

The simulation was created in hopes of filling Strategic Knowledge Gaps, or "gaps in knowledge or information required to reduce risk, increase effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions," per NASA. There are four main SKGs that make traveling to Mars high risk: radiation, an eyeball swelling condition that occurs when people spend too much time in low-gravity situations, crew cooperation, and food and nutrition, reported CNN.

Tracking climate changes

NASA's work isn't limited to space — the agency does valuable work for Earth, as well, especially in regard to tracking climate change. NASA has an Earth-observing satellite with the ability to track carbon dioxide emissions and removal by country. The pilot project was an international effort that included 60 scientists, who published their findings in March 2023 in the journal Earth System Science Data. Tracking carbon emissions was not the initial goal of the satellite, but it provided a unique opportunity. "NASA is focused on delivering Earth science data that addresses real-world climate challenges," said Karen St. Germain, the director of NASA's Earth Science Division.

Another of NASA's satellites also detected early signs of El Niño, the natural phenomenon sending global temperatures skyrocketing. "When we measure sea level from space using satellite altimeters, we know not only the shape and height of water but also its movement, like Kelvin and other waves," explained Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, a NASA program scientist. NASA scientists are also concerned about sand and dust storms, which are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change.

Plane travel

In addition to space travel, NASA is also working to create sustainable travel on Earth. The agency has two programs dedicated to the project: the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project and the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EFPD) project.

For the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, NASA and Boeing are working to develop a full-scale demonstrator aircraft called the X-66A, CNN reported. The project "builds on NASA's world-leading efforts in aeronautics as well climate," NASA's Nelson said in a statement. "The X-66A will help shape the future of aviation, a new era where aircraft are greener, cleaner, and quieter, and create new possibilities for the flying public and American industry alike."

The aircraft is an "experimental aircraft" expected to reduce fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30% compared with today's most efficient aircraft, CNN continued. The agency hopes to run a test flight in 2028.

Streaming service

NASA is joining the streaming game, creating NASA+ which will have "live coverage and views into NASA's missions through collections of original video series, including a handful of new series launching with the streaming service," according to a press release by the agency. The platform will also be an "ad-free, no cost, and family-friendly streaming service."

"Transforming our digital presence will help us better tell the stories of how NASA explores the unknown in air and space, inspires through discovery, and innovates for the benefit of humanity," said Marc Etkind, associate administrator of NASA’s Office of Communications. The platform will be available on iOS, Android mobile, Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV.

Monitoring UFOs

NASA's independent study team released a report on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) with "several recommendations about how the space agency can use its scientific expertise to contribute to the government's investigations into the objects," CBS News reported.

"There are currently a limited number of high-quality observations of UAP, which currently make it impossible to draw firm scientific conclusions about their nature," a NASA press release detailed. The report only used unclassified data but emphasized that "NASA's assets can play a vital role by directly determining whether specific environmental factors are associated with certain reported UAP behaviors or occurrences."

Sampling asteroids

Through the agency's OSIRIS-REx program, scientists have retrieved a sample from the asteroid Bennu. Researchers have only tested the black rocks and dust on the outside of the collection device, but there have already been interesting findings. "We have verified that Bennu is dominated by water-bearing clay minerals," Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, told NPR.

"Far exceeding our goal of 60 grams, this is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever returned to Earth," NASA administrator Bill Nelson told CNN. "The carbon and water molecules are exactly the kinds of material that we wanted to find. The asteroid's clay minerals lead scientists to consider it a potential source of water on Earth.

"We're just beginning here, but we picked the right asteroid, and not only that, we brought back the right sample," Daniel Glavin, OSIRIS-REx sample analyst and senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told CNN. "This stuff is an astrobiologist's dream."

Finding minerals

NASA has started using modified U-2 spy planes to hunt for "strategic minerals" in the desert, Space.com reported. The planes are being used to "locate stores of minerals hidden in the American desert," that are "vital for electronics manufacturing, the US economy and, by extension, national security."

The project is called the Geological Earth Mapping Experiment (GEMx) and is in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey. "Undiscovered deposits of at least some of these critical and strategic minerals almost certainly exist in the United States, but modern geophysical data is needed to increase our knowledge of these resources," Dean Riley, a collaborator on the project, said in a statement.

Psyche mission

NASA launched its Psyche mission in October 2023. The mission's goal is to travel to a "unique metal-rich asteroid with the same name, orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter," according to the NASA website. The asteroid is metal-heavy and may be a "partial core of a planetesimal, a building block of an early planet." It's expected to begin exploring the asteroid in 2029.

The mission hit its first success by "successfully carrying out the most distant demonstration of laser communications," CNN reported. This is through the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration (DSOC) aboard the Psyche spacecraft. The DSOC was able to achieve "first light," successfully sending and receiving its first data. This is the first step in deeper space study and can aid in further exploration and reaching Mars.

Updated Jan. 19, 2024: This article has been updated throughout.