WHEN EUROPE LANDED A ROBOT ON A COMET
Really, did you have any doubt about which space story would clinch the #1 spot? The touch-down of the Rosetta mission’s Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12 was nothing short of epic. After catching up with the icy cometary mass, Rosetta carried out a series of maneuvers that set the mission up for its dramatic attempt to make a soft landing on a comet for the first time in history. But Rosetta wouldn’t be landing on the comet itself. Attached to the spacecraft was Philae, a small lander.
With the help of ESA’s expertise on social media and continuous blog updates, Philae quickly captivated the world as the little lander that was about to conquer a massive comet. And conquer it did, but not before one of the most dramatic landings in space history. After analyzing Philae’s telemetry, mission scientists realized that Philae had bounced three times before coming to rest against the slope of a crater rim. Although the lander had enough batter power for a couple of days, for the lander to survive any longer, its solar panels needed to be correctly positioned so they could charge.
Sadly, Philae was caught in a shadow and after several attempts to optimize the sunlight across the solar array, Philae’s batteries drained and the lander dropped into hibernation. However, Philae feverishly collected as much data as it could before power loss and scientists will be busy for some time understanding the nature of Comet 67P, the first comet a robot has ever grabbed.
INDIA ARRIVES IN MARS ORBIT
One of the stand-out spaceflight successes of the year is the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). On the nation’s first Mars mission attempt, the ISRO did what only three other space organizations (NASA, ESA and Russia/Soviets) have achieved. Arriving in Mars orbit on Sept. 23, just two days after NASA’s MAVEN mission arrived at Mars, MOM immediately started to send back data.
A few days later, stunning images of the Martian globe wowed the world. MOM’s highly elliptical orbit allows much more of the planet to be observed and its data complements observations being made by the four other NASA and ESA satellites that are currently operational in Mars orbit.
The $74 million MOM is mainly a technology demonstration, but it is also a lesson to the world that India is a growing space research powerhouse capable of doing mighty things throughout the solar system.
THERE ARE ODD ROCKS ON MARS
Did you know that Mars is littered with rocks? This may seem like a silly question, but when casually browsing the incredible high-resolution imagery from NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, occasionally you start to see some really odd shapes. Known as pareidolia, that’s your brain tricking you into thinking random rocks are actually more familiar objects like faces, Yetis and rodents. But Opportunity’s “Mars jelly doughnut” was one rock that, initially, had even NASA scientists confused.
It wasn’t so much that the doughnut-shaped rock looked like, well, a doughnut; it was more the fact that it magically “appeared” in front of the rover as it was maneuvering on the surface.
How did it get there? Well, after some careful detective work, mission scientists realized that as the rover turned in place, one of Opportunity’s wheels must have flipped the rock from beneath the rover, landing it in sight of its cameras. Interestingly, the unlikely story of this little rock went viral, securing it a bizarrely strong position in the Top 5
CASSINI’S EXPLORATION OF SATURN’S MOON TITAN
NASA’s veteran Saturn orbiter Cassini has been hard at work this year, continuing to give us unprecedented access to the science behind the gas giant’s stormy atmosphere, its rings and extensive system of moons.
But one of Saturn’s moons always draws the most attention. Of course, that moon is Titan. Enshrouded with a thick atmosphere (the only moon in the solar system to have an atmosphere with its own weather and climate systems), Titan can sustain vast lakes of liquid methane and ethane on the hydrocarbon-rich surface — features that have been the focus of many Cassini-Titan flybys, the 100th of which was celebrated in 2014.
Of particular interest was one of this year’s biggest mysteries: Titan’s bizarre “Magic Island” that appeared and then disappeared in Cassini’s flyby imagery. So what is Magic Island? The jury is still out, but we’re pretty sure it’s not a Titanian Loch Ness Monster.
NASA’S NEW HORIZONS APPROACHES DWARF PLANET PLUTO
Next year will be the year of the dwarf planet. First, in March 2015, we have NASA’s Dawn mission, fresh from orbiting massive asteroid Vesta, entering orbit around the solar system’s innermost dwarf planet Ceres that resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
We’ve never seen Ceres up-close, so this solar system encounter will be one for the history books. Then, in July, NASA’s New Horizons mission will make its much anticipated flyby of Pluto and then careen through the unexplored Kuiper Belt.
Every Pluto-related article this year has been popular, but as New Horizons flew through Neptune’s orbit in August, and then started to image the space around Pluto, spying its tiny moon Hydra and then spotting Pluto-Caron ‘wobble’, your fascination was piqued, making these articles some of the most popular of the year.