We have been exploring outer space for decades, with increasingly sophisticated tools that have allowed us to open our eyes to unknown realities. Such great achievements make us feel smaller and smaller when compared with the limitless universe that surrounds us.
News announced just a few days ago has alerted us to the fact that Earth may have an older ‘cousin', which is very similar in many aspects. NASA said that this planned, known as Kepler 452b, is located in the habitable zone of a star system some 1400 light years away, in the Cygnus constellation.
It's been dubbed our ‘twin’ because, among all of the exoplanets that have been analysed, it is the most similar to Earth in terms of its size, orbit time, potential presence of water, and the distance from the star that it orbits. As this system is studied in more detail, it will surely give us more information about how are relatively young planet may advance as it grows older. This is because the star that it orbits is around 1.5 billion years older than ours.
Will we ever go there? Probably not. The planet is 1400 light years away from our planet, which is a little extreme, even when travelling at the speed of light! Well, if we can't set foot on Kepler 452b, perhaps we can visit the United States instead, which is home to many ideal spots for astrophiles. As British citizens, all you need is a valid passport and ESTA authorisation.
For space enthusiasts visiting Capa Canaveral, Florida, the Kennedy Space Center cannot be missed. The centre is just under an hour's drive from Orlando, located on Merritt Island. The huge site is home to observation towers and launch platforms. Here, you can witness the largest rocket ever launched, touch a real moon rock, meet veteran NASA astronauts and more.
Next to the Kennedy Space Centre is the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is the east-coast launch spot for the US Defence Department. The ‘Kepler' telescope was launched from here in 2009, which is what discovered Kepler 452b just days ago. A small part of the military station is open to visitors, including the Air Force Space and Missile Museum and the historic Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.
Over in Texas, enthusiasts can visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, theNASSA Mission Control Centre for all manned space flights. It can be found 40km southeast of Houston, which is why astronaut messages begin with the word ‘Houston’. The most famous case of this is undoubtedly “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, announced during the failed Apollo 13 mission.
There are also several highly important space centres across the rest of the USA:
The Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, is one of the most famous observatories, and one of the most important in the world in the field of astronomical research. It is home to the famous 5-metre Hale telescope, completed in 1949 and operated by the California Institute of Technology;
The Kitt Peak National Observatory, located 2,096m high on Kitt Peak, in the Quinlan Mountains of the Sonora Desert, 88km from Tucson, Arizona. It has the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world (24, as well as two radio telescopes). The Visitor Center and Museum is open to the public;
The Very Large Array, located in Socorro, New Mexico, is a collection of radio telescopes that became internationally known due to its appearance in the film Contact (1997). The 27 parabolic dishes, each 25m in diameter, are arranged along three arms as if to form a giant "Y" shape, and work together as a single, incredibly powerful antenna. Free visits for tourists are held on the first Saturday of every month and last 30 minutes;
The Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, at an altitude of 1,742m. This is home to the Hooker telescope, which is a reflecting telescope with a 2.5 metre diameter, that has been in operation since November 1917. It remained the largest in the world until the Palomar Observatory built one twice the size in 1948; also in Pasadena you have the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a part of the California Institute of Technology. This is a laboratory currently dedicated to the design, development and construction of unmanned NASA space probes.
The Big Island of Hawaii, on the summit of Mauna Kea (4,205 metres high), is home to the a very important observatory equipped with many large telescopes. Due to its remote location, altitude and proximity to the equator, Mauna Kea is considered to be the best site in the northern hemisphere for astronomical observation. Precisely for this reason, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will be built here; a mega-telescope with a mirror of 30 metres in diameter, which should be operational in 2024. One quarter of the existing telescopes will be dismantled before this date.
So, are you ready for an exciting adventure among the stars? Fortunately you won't need a spacesuit; instead, you just need to have a valid passport, and apply for your ESTA online, which will be ready in just a few hours.
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.