Fly With NASA’s Missions, Past and Future main content.

Fly With NASA’s Missions, Past and Future

by AMNH on


In January 2012 

audience in Hayden Planetarium watching blue cylinder-like images overhead
Fly through the Hayden Planetarium dome at this month’s Astronomy Live! program. © AMNH/C. Chesek

Emily Rice, a research scientist in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, and Brian Levine, an astrophysics educator in the Department of Education, hosted an Astronomy Live event highlighting where NASA spacecraft have gone, where they may go in the future, and what they can teach us about our solar system. Rice and Levine answered a few questions about their experiences in the dome and their favorite NASA milestones.

How does the Digital Universe Atlas help you understand the cosmos and relay that information to others?

Emily Rice: When I first started using the Digital Universe, it was mind-blowing. I had been studying astronomy for over 10 years, but as a research scientist, I hadn’t realized how I had developed a functional but not necessarily accurate view of the cosmos. I could quote the numbers, but I couldn’t immediately describe how that would look. The Digital Universe Atlas takes all that data and translates it into very accurate visualizations that are simply astounding—one glimpse is really worth a thousand words.

Brian Levine: The planetarium is an important tool in our classes and programs as well. It enables us to extend well beyond what our audience can learn by reading and looking at pictures. The scale of the immensity of the universe has always been an important point in my lessons, and by flying around inside this data set, we can see just how big the Earth is in comparison to everything else. Turns out we’re really small, but that’s just the beginning—the universe is full of interesting things, and the best way to learn about it is to visualize it.

What are your favorite NASA missions of the past, and why?

Levine: I think the Mars rovers are my favorites. When I was in high school, the first rovers were sent up, and that was exciting, even if it didn’t do much. But the current rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have outdone every expectation—they’ve given us more of a feeling of the surface of Mars than we’ve ever had before.­

Rice: My favorite missions are the ones with surprising longevity, like the Voyager missions and also the Mars rovers. They remind us that we have to think long-term when we’re planning space missions, because even within the solar system, the distances are vast and communication via radio waves traveling at the speed of light takes much more time than we’re used to on Earth. And when we continue to support missions well past their scheduled lifetimes, the results get even more interesting.

Where do you hope NASA will venture next?

Levine: I think Neptune and Uranus deserve another visit—by a robotic spacecraft, of course. For human exploration, I’d love to take a trip to the Moon when I’m older to visit the first permanent settlement on another celestial object. But if we sent someone to Mars, I’d be happy, too.

Rice: I’m very excited about New Horizons, which will reach Pluto in three years—having already been traveling for six! The outer solar system is really uncharted territory that’s right in our own backyard, and the mission will help us better understand the objects out there and put together the story of how they formed. And like Brian, I hope NASA explores Neptune and Uranus. These ice giants haven’t been visited since the Voyager 2 flybys in the late 1980s, and since then, astronomers have discovered similar planets around other stars. Having a better understanding of our own planets will help us understand their much more distant cousins as well as answer questions about the uniqueness of our solar system.