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5 Space Missions Under NASA Consideration

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From our perspective, missions to other worlds just seem to happen. One day Pluto is a cluster of four pixels; the next day it's a teeming world that looks a lot like Mars. We don't see the decades of research, planning, and engineering that to go into every mission, to say nothing of the travel times, in numbers of years that can reach double digits. NASA periodically puts out calls for low-cost mission proposals, some of which move from PowerPoint to the launch pad. Here are five missions that NASA is presently evaluating. At least one of them will eventually visit other worlds. 


Asteroid 16-Psyche contains about 1 percent of the mass of the asteroid belt, and is basically Cybertron, home planet of the Transformers. There is no water, no minerals conducive to water—it's just a big chunk of iron in space. Scientists suspect that it is the exposed core of a proto-planet whose crust and mantle were blasted away by a series of collisions. Because we're not likely to dig a hole to our own core any time soon, the value in studying such an object is self-evident. If a proposed mission to the asteroid is chosen by NASA, it will be the first time that humans have explored a world that wasn't made of rock or ice.


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You have to admire the effort it took to build the acronym VERITAS, which is short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy. VERITAS is a proposed mission to visit Venus and figure out where things went so wrong. Above the clouds, Venus is far more hospitable to humans than Mars. Its temperature and weather aren't all that different from Earth, and scientists have proposed colonizing Venus with a series of airships. Below the clouds, however, Venus is a living hell. With surface temperatures near 900°F, it's hotter than Mercury, and its south pole is consumed by a rapacious, undying superstorm. The questions VERITAS intends to answer involve the state of Venus's geologic activity; its tectonic characteristics in comparison to Earth; and the evidence of past water at its surface.


Venus and Earth are a lot alike. We're about the same size and made roughly of the same stuff. But Venus is a horrible hell sphere and Earth is slightly less bad and teeming with life. What happened? The presence of two Venus missions on NASA's shortlist for consideration speaks to the importance of answering that question. DAVINCI—the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigations for Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging entry probe—will spend its one-hour descent to Venus analyzing the atmosphere to determine its origin and evolutionary history. It will collect data relating to Venus's long gone ocean, and take the first high-resolution images of tesserae, which are that planet's mysterious highland areas.  


The good news is that NASA has an Office of Planetary Defense. The bad news is that it has nothing to do with space aliens. As the dinosaurs could attest, the solar system is an unforgiving place, and all it could take to turn anthropology into paleontology is a giant rock. NEOCam—short for Near Earth Object Camera—is a four-year mission designed to study asteroids that pose an existential threat to humanity. It is a space-based infrared telescope that will take a hard look at known dangers, and be on the lookout for new ones.


Jupiter shares its orbit with more than 6000 identified asteroids known as Trojans. We're not quite sure where they came from. Maybe they formed around the same time as Jupiter and were simply caught in its gravity. Maybe they were captured early in the solar system's formation, the result of a destabilized Kuiper Belt. Nobody knows! And while the distinction may seem trivial, it's hugely important to understand the history of the solar system. The Lucy mission—named for the 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton—will do for the solar system what Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis did for humans, filling in the gaps from the primordial record. The Lucy spacecraft will fly out to Jupiter's Trojan asteroids and scan, image, and map five of them. It's the last-known population of objects in the solar system that is wholly unexplored. 

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.


NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.


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