A Stellar 2014

Here is a recap of some of the amazing events of the previous year 2014, and a look forward to the year to come.  2014 saw some truly amazing science unfold.

Rosetta

This year we saw the fruits of a highly exciting and important space mission, the ESA Rosetta mission, which not only began orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, but also sent its Philae lander down to the surface of the comet! It was a great accomplishment on both counts, as well as a first for the history books. For the first time, we saw up close images from the surface of a comet, and probed its interior by transmitting radio waves through the comet between lander and orbiter. This mission was extremely exciting, because for the first time in our technological history we have made physical contact with a primordial relic of our ancient solar system’s formation. For the first time, a comet became a very real world with cliffs and valleys and boulders and other formations.  A new place for the imagination to roam.

Organics on Mars

 

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), also known as the Curiosity Rover, detected organic molecules and chemistry on Mars. Almost back to back the MSL team announced two discoveries, a spike in atmospheric methane and organic molecules detected in a dust sample of the martian surface. “Organic” simply means that the molecules contain carbon compounds that are the building blocks for life, not necessarily from life itself. This shows that Mars, like the Earth, had those building blocks present early in its history, and therefore may have harbored life at some point in its past. The methane is extremely interesting because it could point to microorganisms beneath the surface of Mars, which would be a truly revolutionary discovery. It should be noted however, that the methane can also be produced by geologic processes. Both possibilities are illustrated in the graphic (source JPL).

Kepler K2 Mission

Kepler makes a comeback with its first exoplanet discovery under its new mission. In 2013, Kepler met with tragedy as two of its four reaction wheels (necessary to accurately steer the spacecraft) failed. The primary mission could not continue, but a modified mission was devised that could allow Kepler to continue delivering excellent science with the two remaining reaction wheels. This mission has been a favorite of mine right from the start, so I am extremely excited that this secondary mission seems to be working and is producing good science. My hat goes off to the scientists and engineers involved, it is a very creative use of the spacecraft resources given the constraints present on the spacecraft.

Orion

 

Orion finally had it’s first test flight, which finally puts us back on the path to other destinations in our solar system. The Orion spacecraft will enable longer term, deep space missions to the Moon or the asteroids, and hopefully to Mars. I watched the launch that morning, and I became excited again about human space flight.

Cosmos

Cosmos! This year one of the greatest science education series ever written was revived, and spectacularly so. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson picked up where Dr. Carl Sagan left off, continuing our journey through the universe and its many wonders. For the first time in years I found myself plopping down every week, excited to watch the next episode of my favorite show. I haven’t been that excited to watch TV in perhaps a decade or more.

Looking Forward to 2015

It is always difficult to predict what discoveries might occur, so I will choose not to go down the road of meaningless predictions. However, there is one mission that is sure to deliver some amazing results, whatever they may be. That mission is the NASA New Horizons Mission to Pluto. This mission will have traveled roughly nine years to the Pluto system. In the mean time, Pluto was “demoted” as a planet by the IAU and is now referred to as a dwarf-planet, however, it is still a highly fascinating member of our solar system. For example, one discovery that was made while this little spacecraft has been in route is that Pluto has at least five moons! Whatever new horizons discovers for us is sure to be fascinating. I suspect it is likely that the system has more than the five moons we can see from here, and who knows, perhaps even a system of rings. Pluto is sure to spark the imagination of the world and no doubt rekindle the debate on the definition of a planet.

New Horizons will be a fly-by mission, rather than an orbiting mission such as the Cassini mission about Saturn. Instead it will begin taking data a few months before closest approach (which will be in July of this year), and continue to take data all the way past the fly-by and relay that data to us. The spacecraft does not have the ability to slow down enough to orbit Pluto, because it was not designed to do so, for a number of reasons. It will instead fly on to potentially other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO) and take some additional data, if it proves to be possible to do so (if a suitable object is found, etc.)

I’ll be watching this mission closely and will report on it periodically throughout the year.

Happy New Year everyone! Keep your browser pointed here and your twitter feed pointed to @StellarAperture

-Josh

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