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Destler Dodge

“That makes me a space pirate!” declared Mark Watney, the fictional character of Andy Weir's best-selling novel, "The Martian," who uses his intellect and science savvy to survive alone on Mars. This book has propelled astronomy and space exploration to the forefront of our culture's not-so-subconscious. Budgetary funding for space programs such as NASA has been struggling over the past several years, but with society’s growing interest in astronomy, we may all become space pirates someday.

An RIT Graduate Student Space Pirate

“I really hope that space exploration gets people really excited about [space] again, and I hope that the 1950s space race feel comes back,” said Andrew Lipnicky, an Astrophysical Science and Technology graduate student at RIT. “NASA deserves funding, and it is great to see people just getting excited about science.”

“NASA deserves funding, and it is great to see people just getting excited about science.”

Lipnicky is currently working on his dissertation in which he conducts research on dwarf galaxies using telescopes to see the impact of these building blocks that make up our Milky Way.

“My advisor predicted the location of a dwarf galaxy based on how the gas was distributed in the Milky Way and we looked for stars that would be located in the galaxy,” said Lipnicky. “Specifically, we are looking at the plane of the Milky Way with millions of stars for a specific six or seven to prove the dwarf galaxy’s existence.”  

Unfortunately, it can take years of work to prove to the scientific community that you have discovered a dwarf galaxy, so for NASA and other sources to be able to continue funding such research would be extremely helpful to people like Lipnicky.

How politics affects NASA

In 2010, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would not be returning to the Moon anytime soon since "We’ve been there before,” as Loren Grush reported in The Verge. Since then, NASA has cut any plans to return to the Moon throughout the tenure of the Obama administration. During his time in office, Obama has chopped 20 percent of the budget from deep-space exploration programs, and $100 million from planetary science research, as reported by Ledyard King for USA Today.

The shuttle fleet stopped operations in 2011, so NASA has been buying seats aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule to send American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Currently, NASA has a contract with SpaceX and Boeing to send the first crew missions to the ISS in 2017 or 2018, which is more cost effective, reported Alyssa Newcomb for NBC News. However, with Obama leaving office next year, NASA’s plans may change.

A project such as sending men to Mars would take hundreds of billions of dollars, but NASA receives only about $4 billion per year. The president always proposes an annual budget for NASA, and it is then approved by Congress. With either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump entering the office, the budget may change the plans that NASA has outlined for the foreseeable future.

Both candidates have been very unclear about their thoughts pertaining to NASA. Clinton, once rejected from being an astronaut for being a woman, appears to have forgiven the administration. “I really, really do support the space program,” she said at a New Hampshire town hall. Trump’s opinions have been vague, as he has criticized the Obama administration for cutting funding and making the U.S. reliant on Russia for space travel in 2012, and then turned around and said that “Right now, we have bigger problems — you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes.” He seems to prefer the privatization of the space program, keeping a manned mission to Mars as a lower priority, NBC News reported. Neither candidate has offered any firm opinion on budgets.

More than Mars

Mars may be at the forefront of conversation, but there are other projects planned with huge implications for the RIT community.

“We are pushing the limits of the farthest things we can see,” said Jeyhan Kartaltepe, assistant professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Currently, Kartaltepe studies the way our galaxy has evolved, how galaxies have merged together and what this means for our universe.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) intrigues Kartaltepe the most. This is a large, infrared telescope with 6.5 meters of segmented mirrors that will be launched in October of 2018. The JWST will serve as the main observatory for the next 10 years. Astronomers worldwide will be able to use the telescope for reference and to study the formation of solar systems potentially containing planets similar to Earth, along with the evolution of our own solar system. All data from the JWST will be made public since it is being run by a government organization. Kartaltepe will be using the data to perform her research on our galaxy’s evolution and studying its transformation over time.

The JWST would also be helpful for Lipnicky. There is a lot of dust in the solar system, but the infrared nature of the JWST will help cut through the space clutter hiding these galaxies.

Currently, the Obama administration has $569 million set aside for the James Webb Space Telescope in 2017, which will replace the Hubble Telescope, according to USA Today.

“The hope is that it will really revolutionize the world and we can see much deeper things in much better detail … by making [the data] public you can get a lot more science done,” said Kartaltepe.

“The hope is that it will really revolutionize the world and we can see much deeper things in much better detail … by making [the data] public you can get a lot more science done,” said Kartaltepe.

RIT has been involved in huge scientific events in the past, such as the discovery of gravitational waves in February 2016. The Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation participates in this endeavor by simulating outcomes and developing data analysis techniques. Gravitational waves are ripples in time and space, and this discovery confirmed Alfred Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. This discovery has huge implications in science and the cosmos.

“As an astronomer, you will remember where you were when you found out,” said Lipnicky.

In recent news, the Rosetta spacecraft snapped a picture of the lander, Philae, it had sent to the surface and subsequently lost in 2014. At time of publication, Rosetta itself is due to descend to the surface of the comet with the same name on September 30. It will collect valuable data on the way, but the trip will end its mission.

The effects that our next president will have on NASA and space exploration are unknown, but hopefully, with society’s increased interest in the final frontier, our space pirates will be able to keep exploring to expand our knowledge of the universe.