2014 has been a big year for space exploration - scientists landed on a comet, may have detected signals from the Big Bang and dark matter, extensively explored Mars - the list could go on and on. So here’s a collection of our favorite stories from the past year that will hopefully serve as a reminder of the incredible things that science has achieved.
On December 5, NASA successfully completed its first test launch of the Orion capsule, a spacecraft designed to take humans deeper into space than ever before. In the future, when the craft is launched with NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, humans will eventually be able to reach exciting destinations such as asteroids and Mars.
NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center, via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0
This year, the European Space Agency made history when its Rosetta spacecraft caught up with a speeding comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a ten year journey of almost 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles). The ESA then successfully landed its probe, Philae, on the comet's surface for the first time in history, although there were issues with touchdown and, unfortunately, the probe is now asleep due to being shielded from the Sun. Still, the ESA is hopeful that it may wake up in the New Year when more sunlight hits its solar panels, and scientists still managed to gather some exciting data during the short time that the probe was awake.
Mysterious Signal Picked Up
Using NASA’s Chandra Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, scientists detected a strange X-ray signal originating in the Perseus galaxy cluster, some 240 million light years from Earth. Although the results need to be confirmed, scientists believe that it could be coming from the decay of sterile neutrinos- a hypothetical particle that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter- the elusive stuff that makes up much of the Universe.
NASA/CXC/SAO/E.Bulbul, et al.
India Reaches Mars on Maiden Voyage
In September, India became the second nation in just two days to slide a satellite into orbit around Mars. What’s more, this was only the second time that a mission has arrived at Mars on a maiden voyage, and they managed it all on a shoestring. The whole mission set India back $74 million, a fraction of NASA’s $671 million for MAVEN.
Earth-Size Planet Discovered In Habitable Zone
Back in April, NASA scientists discovered the first Earth-size planet-- Kepler 186f-- orbiting its red dwarf star in the habitable zone- the region around a star where liquid water could occur on an orbiting planet’s surface, and could possibly sustain life.
NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech
Ocean On Enceladus
Another amazing discovery for April; NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found evidence for a vast underground ocean of liquid water on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. This was particularly exciting because it raises the possibility that the satellite could be home to extraterrestrial life forms.
Evidence For The Big Bang, Or Perhaps Not
Earlier on in the year, scientists from the BICEP2 collaboration announced that they had made probably one of the biggest space science discoveries for a decade: evidence for cosmic microwave background, which is thought to be leftovers from the Big Bang. However, several months later, ESA scientists showed that the signals may have come from dust in our own galaxy. Although it seems that the discovery may have been a flop, there is still a chance that BICEP2 was correct, but we will have to wait until scientists have finished comparing the data to find out.
Cassini Explores Titan
Although the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, it has made some amazing discoveries about one of the planet’s moons this year- Titan. This year, thanks to the intrepid explorer, scientists may have detected waves on two of Titan’s methane lakes, which would mark the first discovery of ocean waves beyond Earth. Scientists also spotted something very strange in one of the moon’s seas, which was dubbed “Magic Island,” although scientists are still unsure of its identity.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho
SpaceX Reveals Dragon Capsule
Back in May, SpaceX’s new re-usable spacecraft, Dragon V2, made its debut. This capsule is capable of carrying humans and will be able to launch and land anywhere on Earth, much like a helicopter, revolutionizing the way we get into space. It’s designed to be able to take astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond, and is capable of carrying up to 7 crewmembers.
Cosmic Web Glimpsed For The First Time
For many years, astronomers have predicted that a vast cosmic “web” exists in our Universe, composed of a sub-structured network of sheets and filaments of both ordinary and dark matter. And back in January, for the first time, scientists finally managed to image the hydrogen gas from a filament using light from an ancient quasar, which will hopefully help scientists understand more about how the Universe is structured.
Bolshoi simulation, by Anatoly Klypin and Joel Primack. Inset: S. Cantalupo