Keep Looking Up – Scientific American


The end of a calendar year is an opportunity to reflect on the inexorable progress of time to the present and any new beginnings in the future. People are enamored with the end of the year — not just for the nostalgia, but for the cognitive clarity it offers amidst so much uncertainty.

So looking back, what was the most important thing about 2022? The COVID pandemic continues to plague the world. Its dizzying array of destabilizing symptoms has helped fuel the resurgence of fascism everywhere, including the US. Meanwhile, the specter of nuclear annihilation once again lurks around the world, over Russia’s cutthroat aggression against Ukraine, which is increasingly a not-so-vicarious war with NATO. Struck by these and other blows, the world economy appears to be slipping into another recession.

Against the dark backdrop of such events, perhaps by looking to the heavens we can find some hope. In the long arc of time, when the dust settles on 2022, the most significant events on earth could originate from events of a celestial nature.

This year marked a bittersweet milestone in humanity’s fledgling quest to transcend the confines of our lonely, troubled world: the 50th anniversary of the last steps on the moon, taken in 1972 by the late Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan. That such feats were achieved so long ago is inspiring, but it is bleak that they remain unprecedented 50 years later. However, over this period of time, the technologies required for such voyages have gradually spread around the world, putting manned lunar exploration—perhaps even settlements—within reach of numerous nations and even private companies. These efforts are consistent with seemingly outdated dreams of establishing a permanent human presence on worlds beyond Earth. But reimagined for the 21st century, being “multiplanetary” might be less about pursuing a dubious extraterrestrial manifest destiny and more about finding bold ways to reduce our crushing collective weight on the biosphere.

And 2022 brought us a new eye on the cosmos: the US-led multinational James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The project is in some respects the most ambitious and sophisticated technological construct ever built and, after more than two decades of development, now offers not only unexpected discoveries about our deepest cosmic origins and the current galactic context, but also further proof that that we are only human can come together to accomplish extraordinary, seemingly impossible tasks.

Perhaps most significant, however, was the successful Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, a spacecraft sent by NASA to enter the orbit of a small space rock, Dimorphos, and fundamentally alter it. Never before has humanity reached out to so intentionally strike such an enduring chord in the music of the spheres. Dimorphos’ altered trajectory will now resonate with the movements of the solar system until the sun itself dimmers. Given sufficient advance warning (which fortunately could come from JWST and other telescopic sentinels), the technique could be used in the future to deflect planet-threatening impactors and stave off the horrific fate that befell dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. Although DART was an American mission, its potential benefits extend to all now alive and even those yet to be born – and as such, are worthy of celebration.

What is certain – and certainly significant – is that the same rapid technological developments that have made such achievements possible also require resource consumption on a scale that makes our global civilization more vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean, as short-sighted critics claim, that the quest to send humans to live and work in outer space has to be an escapist techno-fantasy that relinquishes our stewardship of the earth.

DART has shown that we have the power to prevent some kind of natural apocalypse – a subtle hint that eventual further advances in our off-world abilities could also help us prevent many possible others of our own making . Despite long resistance, the success of JWST showed us the power of institutional persistence and international cooperation when it comes to daring things. And each new astronautical excursion is a constant reminder of our common humanity, regardless of other labels applied based on race, gender, nationality, or creed. As the year ends, let us remember that our actions and aspirations in space define us just as much as everything we do here on earth.


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