2011: A Big Year For Space Exploration

Some might be inclined to think 2011 was a pretty bad year for space, what with the U.S. space program shutting down. While the Atlantis marked the last mission in NASA's decades-long space shuttle program, the agency still managed to have other significant launches this year. Crafts visited Mercury, a massive asteroid known as Vesta, and the moon. Another left for Jupiter, and the Voyager 1 spacecraft sailed out of our solar system. Guest host Rebecca Sheir talks to Neil deGrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium, about whether all that made 2011 a good year for space exploration.

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REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

2011 was, of course, a big year for a lot of things, but not just here on Earth. In the spring, NASA's Messenger probe became the first spacecraft to arrive in orbit around Mercury. Over the summer, we saw groundbreaking photos of a giant asteroid nearing Earth. A craft left for Jupiter in August, another for Mars in November, and throughout the year, Voyager 1 sailed farther and farther out of our solar system. What excited Neil deGrasse Tyson most about space in 2011?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: He's head of New York City's Hayden Planetarium. And he says a lot of space watchers shed a tear over the biggest astro event of the year, the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program, which eclipsed some other big events in space science.

TYSON: I would say for me, the most ambitious among these missions is the Mars Science Laboratory dubbed Curiosity. And the Mars Science Laboratory is going to do experiments to see if the conditions on the Martian surface can sustain organics, which would be the building blocks for life. It's a whole other round of questions that we now get to ask about the surface of Mars.

SHEIR: Let's move on to a slightly larger planet, then, Jupiter. We've got Juno, that's the spacecraft heading up there. It won't be there for another five years, really?

TYSON: Yeah. Jupiter's far - you know, these things are far away, and we don't know how to move very fast. Interesting thing about Jupiter, Jupiter actually gives more energy out than it receives from the sun. There's a huge, monstrous magnetic field and radiation belts. So any time you go to investigate it, first, you have to have specially, what they call hardened electronics that can survive in these harsh environments. And then you want to actually make the measurements, things like the magnetic field, the radiation flux, the chemistry of the atmosphere.

And so these missions to Mercury, to Jupiter, they're all equipped with the sweep of experiments just to try to give us some understanding beyond just the spec view that telescopes give us.

SHEIR: So looking at exoplanet research, scientists announced this month they'd found Kepler-22b, a planet outside our solar system orbiting a star in the so-called Goldilocks Zone where water might be present. Now that it's been found, what would you say is next?

TYSON: Yeah. So we knew that we'd find planets around other stars, but the Holy Grail among the planets would be an Earth-like planet, and you've got it. And so now, that's where you might send radio signals to see if there's any intelligent life there. One problem there is that, first, Earth-like planet in the Goldilocks Zone is 600 light-years away. So you could send a signal today, and we'd get a reply 1,200 years later.

SHEIR: Oh, no.

TYSON: And what were we doing on Earth 1,200 years ago, you know? So right now, it's sort of a philosophical interest that there might be life there, but it's not much we know how to do about it if there is.

SHEIR: Neil, what do you hope will be accomplished in space science over this next year?

TYSON: Oh, one year is not - I got to think in longer timeframes than that. You're thinking like annual report question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TYSON: I have to think cosmically, excuse me. So in the next five, 10 years, 20 years, I think we'll be equipped to answer definitely whether life ever thrived in our backyard. I think the Mars Science Laboratory will lead that effort. By the way, and if our backyard does not have life, the galaxy is vast. And if you looked at an image of how far we have explored and how far our radio signals have reached, that's what we call a radio bubble, it's 80 light-years across, that bubble is tiny compared with the 100,000 light-year diameter of our Milky Way galaxy. So I'd be disappointed, but I'd say let's keep looking.

SHEIR: Neil, deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. Thanks so much, Neil, and Happy New Year.

TYSON: Oh, thank you very much.

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