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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.1, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Science, Technology, and Society

SPOTLIGHT

Destination Space!

Prepare for liftoff! A new era of space exploration is underway as government agencies and private companies set their sights on Mars, the moon, and more. Read on to learn about scientists’ greatest space ambitions—and what they hope to discover about our solar system along the way.

THE MISSION

Send humans to Mars—and dress them for success.

When it comes to space, many countries are vying to visit Mars. The United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates all launched unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet earlier this year.

The U.S. space agency NASA sent the Perseverance rover as part of its larger goal to send a crew of astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

When Perseverance arrives on Mars in February, the rover will explore a crater that experts think once held a lake, attempt to extract oxygen from the atmosphere, and even help determine what the first humans to the planet should wear.

Perseverance is carrying five pieces of spacesuit material, including a swatch of flame-resistant fabric and a piece of shatterproof polycarbonate, which is used in astronauts’ helmets to block out ultraviolet light.

NASA engineers know they need to design the safest spacesuit possible to protect human explorers on Mars. The planet is ice-cold, with an average temperature of -80 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is also thin, so there’s less protection from the sun’s radiation. (Increased radiation exposure could put astronauts at risk for cancer.)

Scientists will be closely monitoring the materials aboard Perseverance to determine whether they can withstand such harsh elements.

“The Mars missions that we’ll eventually send humans on are going to be more challenging than any we’ve ever tried before,” says Amy Ross, a NASA spacesuit engineer. By testing materials on the planet, “we can understand how they hold up—or don’t—in that environment.”

When it comes to space, many countries are competing to visit Mars. The United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates all launched unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet earlier this year.

The U.S. space agency NASA sent a rover called Perseverance. That was part of its larger goal to send a crew of astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

When Perseverance arrives on Mars in February, it will explore a crater that experts think once held a lake. It also will try to draw out oxygen from the atmosphere. The rover will even help determine what the first humans to the planet should wear.

Perseverance is carrying five pieces of spacesuit material. These include a swatch of flame-resistant fabric and a piece of shatterproof polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is used in astronauts’ helmets to block out ultraviolet light.

NASA engineers know they need to design the safest spacesuit possible to protect human explorers on Mars. The planet is ice-cold. Its average temperature is -80 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is also thin, so there is less protection from the sun’s radiation. (Exposure to increased radiation could put astronauts at risk for cancer.)

Scientists will keep careful watch on the materials aboard Perseverance to find out whether the materials can withstand such harsh elements.

“The Mars missions that we’ll eventually send humans on are going to be more challenging than any we’ve ever tried before,” says Amy Ross. She is a NASA spacesuit engineer. By testing materials on the planet, Ross says, “we can understand how they hold up—or don’t—in that environment.”

THE MISSION

Return to the Moon!

A number of nations’ space agencies are shooting for the moon. In 2019, China became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. It vows to send humans to the lunar surface by 2030. Meanwhile, Russia has plans to one day form a colony on the moon. 

Still, the U.S. remains the only country to have sent humans to walk on the lunar surface, and now NASA is poised to make history again. In 2024, it plans to send two astronauts there—including the first woman—as part of its Artemis program. 

Among the candidates in the running for the job is NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a giant laboratory that orbits Earth. (See “Life in Space,” below.)

The astronauts on the U.S. mission will land on the moon’s south pole, where frozen water was recently detected. The crew will search for that water, which experts say will be key to carrying out human missions in space.

How so? The main components of water are hydrogen and oxygen, essential elements for producing rocket fuel. If NASA can figure out a way to make fuel on the moon, spacecraft could refuel there. That would allow astronauts to travel in space for longer periods—and perhaps even stay there permanently.

“The key to living on the moon is water—the same as here on Earth,” says NASA engineer Daniel Andrews. “The question now is if the moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live.”

A number of nations’ space agencies are shooting for the moon. In 2019, China became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. It vows to send humans to the lunar surface by 2030. Russia has plans to one day form a colony on the moon.

Still, the U.S. remains the only country to have sent humans to walk on the lunar surface. NASA is now preparing to make history again. In 2024, it plans to send two astronauts there, including the first woman, as part of its Artemis program.

Among the candidates in the running for the job is NASA astronaut Christina Koch. She lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a giant laboratory that orbits Earth. (See “Life in Space,” below.)

The astronauts on the U.S. mission will land on the moon’s south pole. Frozen water was recently detected there. The crew will search for that water, which experts say will be key to carrying out human missions in space.

How so? The main parts of water are hydrogen and oxygen. They are essential elements for producing rocket fuel. If NASA can figure out a way to make fuel on the moon, spacecraft could refuel there. That would let astronauts travel in space for longer periods and perhaps even stay there permanently.

“The key to living on the moon is water—the same as here on Earth,” says Daniel Andrews, a NASA engineer. “The question now is if the moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live.”

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THE MISSION

Search for life on Venus.

With an atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide and average temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, Venus is one of the last places experts would expect to find life.

That’s why researchers were shocked recently to discover a gas in the planet’s atmosphere that they say indicates the presence of microorganisms in the clouds. (Microorganisms are living things, such as bacteria, that are too small to be seen.)

The gas is called phosphine, which is found on Earth in the intestines of some animals. Researchers detected the gas using telescopes, but the only way to determine what’s really there is to send spacecraft to Venus to investigate.

A company in New Zealand called Rocket Lab could lead such a mission. 

Rocket Lab plans to launch a spacecraft to Venus as early as 2023. As the spacecraft flies by the planet, it will release a small probe into the atmosphere where phosphine was detected. The probe will take readings of Venus’s clouds and beam the information back to the spacecraft before crashing to the planet’s surface.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder, is eager to help shed light on Venus.

“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” he recently told The New York Times. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility.”

Venus has an atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide and average temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It is one of the last places experts would expect to find life.

That is why researchers were shocked recently to discover a gas in the planet’s atmosphere that they say shows the presence of microorganisms in the clouds. (Microorganisms are living things, such as bacteria, that are too small to be seen.)

The gas is called phosphine. It is found on Earth in the intestines of some animals. Researchers detected the gas on Venus using telescopes, but the only way to find out what is really there is to send spacecraft to Venus to investigate.

A company in New Zealand called Rocket Lab could lead such a mission.

Rocket Lab plans to launch a spacecraft to Venus as early as 2023. As the spacecraft flies by the planet, it will release a small probe into the atmosphere where phosphine was detected. The probe will take readings of Venus’s clouds. It will beam that information back to the spacecraft before crashing to the planet’s surface.

Peter Beck is Rocket Lab’s founder. He is eager to help shed light on Venus.

“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” Beck recently told The New York Times. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility.”

THE MISSION

Make space travel possible for everyone.

Why should astronauts have all the excitement? Private companies are closer than ever to sending everyday people to space. Some of these organizations want to colonize our solar system, which some experts say could be crucial if Earth were ever to become uninhabitable following a disaster such as an asteroid strike. Others simply want to offer “space tourists” an out-of-this-world trip.

One company, SpaceX, is aiming to establish a human settlement on Mars in the next few decades. It is developing reusable rockets as a cost-effective way to power thousands of humans to the Red Planet, where they’ll live permanently. 

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic plans to offer flights through Earth’s atmosphere as early as next year. It is developing rocket-powered spacecraft to send passengers more than 50 miles high.

Even NASA is welcoming people to space. It recently announced that it plans to allow private citizens to visit the ISS—on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing, another company.

Robert Goehlich, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Berlin, Germany, is excited that spaceflight may soon become an option for a larger population.

“People who travel to space have a greater perspective on the Earth as a whole,” he says. “That’s a benefit for all humankind.” 

Why should astronauts have all the excitement? Private companies are closer than ever to sending everyday people to space. Some of these organizations want to colonize our solar system. Some experts say this could be crucial if Earth were ever to become unfit to live on after a disaster such as an asteroid strike. Other organizations simply want to offer “space tourists” an out-of-this-world trip.

One company, SpaceX, is aiming to establish a human settlement on Mars in the next few decades. It is developing reusable rockets as a cost-effective way to power thousands of humans to the Red Planet. These people would live there permanently.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic plans to offer flights through Earth’s atmosphere as early as next year. It is developing rocket-powered spacecraft to send passengers more than 50 miles high.

Even NASA is welcoming people to space. It recently announced that it plans to let private citizens visit the ISS. They would travel to and from the ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing, another company.

Robert Goehlich is a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Berlin, Germany. He is excited that spaceflight may soon become an option for a larger population.

“People who travel to space have a greater perspective on the Earth as a whole,” Goehlich says. “That’s a benefit for all humankind.”

Illustration by Gary Hanna; Shutterstock.com (background)

Life in Space

What’s it like to live on a space station? Take a tour with astronaut Christina Koch to find out! 

For 20 years, space travelers from more than 15 countries have journeyed to the International Space Station (ISS), a giant laboratory that orbits Earth. American astronaut Christina Koch is one of them. Earlier this year, she returned home to Texas with a new record under her belt. Koch had spent 328 consecutive days in space. It was the longest single spaceflight ever by a woman.

Astronauts like Koch spend months at a time on the ISS conducting important experiments. Scientists hope their findings will prepare astronauts for future missions to Mars and beyond. 

Over the past two decades, the ISS has grown from a few small sections, called modules, to a station the size of a football field.

So what’s it like to live and work more than 200 miles above Earth? Koch says it’s a lot different from life on our planet. Here’s how.

—Sarah Wells

For 20 years, space travelers from more than 15 countries have traveled to the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is a giant laboratory that orbits Earth. American astronaut Christina Koch is one of them. Earlier this year, she returned home to Texas with a new record under her belt. Koch had spent 328 consecutive days in space. It was the longest single spaceflight ever by a woman.

Astronauts like Koch spend months at a time on the ISS. They conduct important experiments there. Scientists hope their findings will prepare astronauts for future missions to Mars and beyond.

The ISS has grown over the past two decades. What started as a few small sections, called modules, has grown into a station the size of a football field.

So what is it like to live and work more than 200 miles above Earth? Koch says it is a lot different from life on our planet. Here is how.

—Sarah Wells

Nighty Night

NASA

The pull of gravity is much weaker in space, causing objects and people to float. (Koch says she spent a lot of time upside down!) This can make sleeping tricky, so astronauts on the ISS zip themselves into sleeping bags that are strapped to the walls or ceilings to keep them in place.

“It’s a lot of fun, as long as you don’t mind looking silly,” Koch says.

The pull of gravity is much weaker in space. This causes objects and people to float. (Koch says she spent a lot of time upside down!) This can make sleeping tricky. Astronauts on the ISS zip themselves into sleeping bags that are strapped to the walls or ceilings to keep them in place.

“It’s a lot of fun, as long as you don’t mind looking silly,” Koch says.

Working Hard 

NASA

Astronauts on the ISS spend a lot of time conducting experiments, such as testing how different foods can be grown in space. So far, more than 3,000 research projects have been done on the ISS.

Since the station is basically one big science lab, there’s little separation between where astronauts sleep and where they work.

“Wake up, come out of your bedroom, and, boom, you’re in the workplace,” says Koch (right).

Astronauts on the ISS spend a lot of time conducting experiments, such as testing how different foods can be grown in space. More than 3,000 research projects have been done on the ISS so far.

The station is basically one big science lab. There is little separation between where astronauts sleep and where they work.

“Wake up, come out of your bedroom, and, boom, you’re in the workplace,” says Koch (right).

Walking in Space

NASA

Last fall, Koch (right) and fellow astronaut Jessica Meir became the first all-female team to conduct a spacewalk. Wearing spacesuits that allowed them to breathe, they floated out of the ISS to change a battery on its exterior.

“It almost feels like you’re just hanging or falling,” Koch says. “But you’re not—you’re attached to the space station.”

Last fall, Koch (right) and fellow astronaut Jessica Meir became the first all-female team to conduct a spacewalk. The two wore spacesuits that allowed them to breathe when they floated out of the ISS to change a battery on its exterior.

“It almost feels like you’re just hanging or falling,” Koch says. “But you’re not—you’re attached to the space station.”

Eat Up

NASA

The ISS doesn’t have any refrigerators, so food is freeze-dried, which allows it to last for months. Most meals are mashed up and slurped from pouches. But what about drinks? 

“Our liquid waste actually gets turned back into our drinking water!” Koch says. 

Don’t worry, though. It goes through a special filtration system first!

The ISS does not have any refrigerators. Food is freeze-dried. This method allows food to last for months. Most meals are mashed up and slurped from pouches. But what about drinks?

“Our liquid waste actually gets turned back into our drinking water!” Koch says.

But do not worry. It goes through a special filtration system first.

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