It's an exciting time to be exploring space, since scientists say humans now know more about the solar system we live in than ever before and our knowledge continues to grow. Currently, a spacecraft called Messenger that has been en route to the planet Mercury since 2006 is preparing to get its first glimpse of the closest planet to the sun. Ultimately, Messenger will orbit Mercury for a year and will send back data about the planet's atmosphere and magnetic fields.
Other exciting developments in solar system exploration include a new Mars craft that can take more extensive data and soil samples; a planned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, which could harbor life; and exploration of Saturn's moon, Enceladus.
Ed Weiler, NASA's chief scientists, predicts that sometime this century, humans will discover that life exists elsewhere, perhaps even in our own solar system. Scientists predict, though, that it will take the cooperation of the entire global community to explore the deepest reaches of the solar system and the vast expanse of space around Earth.
"I would predict, in this century, humans will prove that life exists somewhere else in the universe, whether it's past, present, fossils, bugs, whatever." - Ed Weiler, NASA
"The kinds of science we're talking about may require not just one nation, but many nations deciding this is the important science to do." - Jim Zimbelman, National Air and Space Museum
"We understand the solar system in a way that would have just been unimaginable when I was young." - Steve Squyres, Cornell University
1. What is the solar system? What are its planets?
2. How have humans been able to explore other planets in the solar system? What kind of data are scientists interested in gathering from those planets?
3. Which planet is closest to the sun? What do you think conditions are like there?
1. Do you think it's important to explore the other planets in our solar system? Why or why not?
2. What do you think the next major advances in space exploration will be?
3. Do you agree with Ed Weiler's statement that humans will find life somewhere other than Earth this century? Why or why not?