Feel like visiting a dwarf planet today? How about a comet or the planet Mars? Luckily for us, there are sentinels across the Solar System bringing us incredible images, allowing us to browse the photos and follow in the footsteps of these machines. And yes, there are even a few lucky humans taking pictures above Earth as well.
Below — not necessarily in any order — are some of the best space photos of 2014. You’ll catch glimpses of Pluto and Ceres (big destinations of 2015) and of course Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (for a mission that began close-up operations in 2014 and will continue next year.) Enjoy!
It seems a lot of the space stories of this year involve spacecraft making journeys: bouncing across a comet, or making their way to Mars. Private companies also figure prominently, both in terms of successes and prominent failures.
These are Universe Today’s picks for the top space stories of the year. Disagree? Think we forgot something? Let us know in the comments.
10. End of Venus Express
This month saw the end of Venus Express’ eight-year mission at the planet, which happened after the spacecraft made a daring plunge into part of the atmosphere to learn more about its properties. The spacecraft survived the aerobraking maneuvers, but ran out of fuel after a few engine burns to raise it higher. Soon it will plunge into the atmosphere for good. But it was a productive mission overall, with discoveries ranging from a slowing rotation to mysterious “glories”.
9. Continued discoveries by Curiosity and Opportunity
Methane? Organics? Water? Mars appears to have had these substances in abundance over its history. Continued work from the Curiosity rover — passing its second Earth year on Mars — found methane fluctuating in Gale Crater, and the first confirmed discovery of organics on the Martian surface. Opportunity is almost 11 years into its mission and battling memory problems, but the rover is still on the move (passing 41 kilometers) to an area that could be full of clay.
8. Siding Spring at Mars and the level of study of the comet by other missions at Mars
We had a rare opportunity to watch a comet make a grazing pass by Mars, not close enough to pose significant danger to spacecraft, but definitely close enough to affect its atmosphere! Siding Spring caught everyone’s attention throughout the year, and did not disappoint. The numerous spacecraft at the Red Planet caught glimpses, including from the surface and from orbit. It likely created a meteor shower and could alter the Martian atmosphere forever.
7. Kepler K2
The Kepler space telescope lost the second of its four pointing devices last year, requiring a major rethink for the veteran planet hunter. The solution was a new mission called K2 that uses the pressure of the Sun to maintain the spacecraft’s direction, although it has to flip every 83 days or so to a new location to avoid the star’s glare. It’s not as precise as before, but with the mission approved we now know for sure K2 can locate exoplanets. The first confirmed one is a super-Earth.
6. MAVEN at Mars
Where did the Martian atmosphere go? Why was it so thick in the past, allowing water to flow on the surface, and so thin right now? The prevailing theory is that the Sun’s pressure on the Martian atmosphere pushed lighter isotopes (such as that of hydrogen) away from the planet, leaving heavier isotopes behind. NASA is now investigating this in more detail with MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), which arrived at the planet this fall.
5. India’s MOM
India made history this year as only the third entity to successfully reach the Red Planet (after the United States and Europe). While updates from the Mars Orbiter Mission have been slow in recent weeks, we know for sure that it observed Siding Spring at Mars and it has been diligently taking pictures of the Red Planet, such as this one of the Solar System’s largest volcano and a huge canyon on Mars.
4. Accidents by Virgin and Orbital
In one sobering week in October, the dangers of space travel were again made clear after incidents affected Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences. Virgin lost a pilot and seriously injured another when something went seriously awry during a flight test. Investigators have so far determined that the re-entry system turned on prematurely, but more details are being determined. Orbital meanwhile suffered the catastrophic loss of one of its Antares rockets, perhaps due to Soviet-era-designed engines, but the company is looking at other ways to fulfill its NASA contractual obligations to send cargo to the International Space Station.
3. SpaceX rocket landing attempts
SpaceX is attempting a daunting technological feat, which is bringing back its rocket first stages for re-use. The company is hoping that this will cut down on the costs of launch in the long term, but this technological innovation will take some time. The Falcon 9 rocket stage that made it back to the ocean in July was deemed a success, although the force of the landing broke it apart. Next, SpaceX is trying to place its rocket on an ocean platform.
2. Orion flight
NASA’s spacecraft for deep space exploration (Orion) successfully finished its first major uncrewed test this month, when it rode into orbit, made a high-speed re-entry and successfully splashed down in the ocean. But it’s going to be a while before Orion flies again, likely in 2017 or even 2018. NASA hopes to put a crew on this spacecraft type in the 2020s, potentially for trips to the Moon, an asteroid or (more distantly) Mars.
Stand in the same spot every day. Take a picture of the Sun. What happens? Slowly, you see our closest star shifting positions in the sky. That motion over an entire year is called an analemma. The Opportunity rover on Mars even captured one on the Red Planet, which you can see above, and it’s a different shape than what you’ll find on Earth.
An April Astronomy Picture of the Day post (highlighted this weekend on Reddit) explains that Earth’s analemma of the Sun is figure-8-shaped, while that on Mars looks somewhat like a pear (or a teardrop, we think.) The Earth and Mars each have about the same tilt in their orbit — that same tilt that produces the seasons — but the orbit of Mars is more elliptical (oval) than that of Earth.
“When Mars is farther from the Sun, the Sun progresses slowly in the martian sky creating the pointy top of the curve,” the APOD post stated. “When close to the Sun and moving quickly, the apparent solar motion is stretched into the rounded bottom. For several sols some of the frames are missing due to rover operations and dust storms.”
The picture you see at the top of the post was taken every third sol (or Martian day, which is 24 hours and 37 minutes) between July 2006 and June 2008. The landscape surrounding the analemma is from Victoria Crater, where Opportunity was roaming at that time. (The rover is now on the rim of Endeavour Crater, still trucking after nearly 11 full years on the surface.)
In 2006, APOD also published a simulated analemma from Sagan Memorial Station, the landing site of the Sojourner spacecraft and tiny Pathfinder rover. In this case, the simulation showed the Sun’s movements every 30 sols. A Martian year is 668 sols.
NASA’s aging Mars rover is still struggling with Flash memory after several months of controllers trying to work around frequent resets and amnesia events, according to a recent update.
The Opportunity rover is coming up on its 11th anniversary of landing on Mars, and is busy exploring the rim of Endeavour crater, en route to a region that could have clay minerals (showing evidence of water). But the rover has been dogged by frequent memory problems that forced a reformat in September, with only partial success.
While the updates have said the rover is still performing science, NASA says in a Dec. 4 to Dec. 9 update of the mission that the Flash memory was reformatted once again, and that controllers don’t plan to use any of it for the time being. Flash is useful because it retains data even when the rover is turned off. NASA is instead storing “data products” in RAM format.
“Longer term, the project is developing a strategy to mask off the troubled sector of Flash and resume using the remainder of the Flash file system,” NASA stated.
The Opportunity Mars rover is busy on its wheels as it moves towards “Marathon Valley”, a location that could include clay minerals — a sign of past water in the region. After successfully passing 41 kilometers (25.47 miles) in total driving a few weeks ago, the rover is closing out its 11th year on Mars with guided and unguided drives towards that destination.
As of late November, the latest status update available from NASA, the rover is just about a half-mile (1 kilometer) from Marathon Valley and busy collecting measurements on an interesting geologic feature en route. This followed several hundred feet of driving that took place just before.
The rover is now racing to finish its work as the Martian winter approaches. Its science activities are still being disrupted by rover difficulties, according to the Planetary Society, which follows weeks of memory problems that have plagued Opportunity through the fall. But Opportunity is still trekking despite these aging issues and transmitting raw imagery from the surface of Mars, which you can see below.
The NASA machine is roaming the west edge of Endeavour Crater on its way to an area nicknamed “Marathon Valley”, which could contain clay minerals. Clays are considered a sign of water being in a region in the ancient past, which feeds into NASA’s ongoing search for habitable environments on Mars.
By the way, Opportunity is now just shy of a marathon’s worth of driving on Mars (which would be 26 miles, or 41.8 kilometers). In the meantime, we’ve collected some raw images from Opportunity to share. What new horizons will the plucky rover find next, as it draws close to its 11th anniversary on Mars in January?
Grab your 3-D glasses (you do have a pair handy, right?) and take a look at this latest vista from Mars. This is a view taken by the Opportunity rover that looks at a location nicknamed “Wdowiak Ridge”, on the rim of Endeavour Crater.
This mosaic was obtained Sept. 17 as Opportunity continued its journey to “Marathon Valley”, a spot that could hold clays (which would indicate a water-rich environment in the past.) The rover is more than a decade into its mission and has been sending back images amid battling Flash memory problems lately.
“Wdowiak Ridge sticks out like a sore thumb. We want to understand why this ridge is located off the primary rim of Endeavour Crater and how it fits into the geologic story of this region,” stated Jim Rice, the Opportunity science-team of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona.
More specifically, the team is interested in why this ridge is so prominent and sharp — they are calling it one of the most distinctive features Opportunity has ever seen. How it resisted erosion in an area so worn down is one thing scientists are hoping to learn about.
The last Opportunity rover update talks about activities through Sept. 30, but NASA has released raw images available since then. Check out a selection below.
Not to be outdone by the feisty Opportunity Rover, the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) turned in its homework this evening with a fine image of comet C/2013 Siding Spring taken during closest approach on October 19.
The highest-resolution images were acquired by HiRISE at the minimum distance of 85,750 miles (138,000 km). The image has a scale of 453 feet (138-m) per pixel.
The top set of photos uses the full dynamic range of the camera to accurately depict brightness and detail in the nuclear region and inner coma. Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the nucleus or comet’s core diameter at around 0.6 mile (1 km). Based on these images, where the brightest feature is only 2-3 pixels across, its true size is shy of 1/3 mile or 0.5 km. The bottom photos overexpose the comet’s innards but reveal an extended coma and the beginning of a tail extending to the right.
To photograph a fast-moving target from orbit, engineers at Lockheed-Martin in Denver precisely pointed and slewed the spacecraft based on comet position calculations by engineers at JPL. To make sure they knew exactly where the comet was, the team photographed the comet 12 days in advance when it was barely bright enough to register above the detector’s noise level. To their surprise, it was not exactly where orbital calculations had predicted it to be. Using the new positions, MRO succeeded in locking onto the comet during the flyby. Without this “double check” its cameras may have missed seeing Siding Spring altogether!
Meanwhile, the Jet Propulsion Lab has released an annotated image showing the stars around the comet in the photo taken by NASA’s Opportunity Rover during closest approach. From Mars’ perspective the comet passed near Alpha Ceti in the constellation Cetus, but here on Earth we see it in southern Ophiuchus not far from Sagittarius.
“It’s excitingly fortunate that this comet came so close to Mars to give us a chance to study it with the instruments we’re using to study Mars,” said Opportunity science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, who coordinated the camera pointing. “The views from Mars rovers, in particular, give us a human perspective, because they are about as sensitive to light as our eyes would be.”
After seeing photos from both Earth and Mars I swear I’m that close to picturing this comet in 3D in my mind’s eye. NASA engineers and scientists deserve a huge thanks for their amazing and successful effort to turn rovers and spacecraft, intended for other purposes, into comet observatories in a pinch and then deliver results within 24 hours. Nice work!
NASA’s Opportunity rover is still experiencing frequent memory resets as it roams the Martian terrain near Endeavour Crater, even though the agency performed a reset a few weeks ago.
Officials, however, say the rover is healthy otherwise and ready for its next science goals: reaching a small crater dubbed Ulysses, and watching a comet pass by Mars in mid-October.
Opportunity is approaching its eleventh anniversary of working on Mars this coming January. The hardy rover has driven 25.34 miles (40.78 kilometers) as of late September, almost a marathon’s worth of exploration. Its original mandate was to last just 90 Earth days on Mars.
In late August, however, science was getting derailed because the aging rover’s Flash memory experienced frequent resets. This kind of memory stores information even while the rover is turned off. NASA did a reformat from afar and said at the time that the procedure worked perfectly, but in the weeks since Opportunity has experienced several resets. The agency is investigating what to do next.
NASA’s Opportunity update archive reports memory resets on Sept. 17, 20, 22, 23, 24 and 26. The agency is calling these events “benign” and the rover is performing drives and science amid the issues.
Among its work, in late September the rover did a twilight test of its panoramic camera to get ready for observations of Comet Siding Spring, which is skimming the Red Planet on Oct. 19, 2014.
On the surface, the rover has been examining ejecta of the small crater Ulysses and doing close-up observations of a rock surface nicknamed “Hoover”. Opportunity’s long-term science goal is to reach a zone dubbed Marathon Valley, where there could be clay minerals that formed in water.
No science data is missing after the Opportunity Mars rover had a brief “amnesia” event last week, NASA said in an update posted yesterday (Sept. 23). The hiccup occurred a few days after the rover had a reformat to correct ongoing memory problems that were stopping it from doing its mission.
The latest incident happened when the rover “woke up” for a day of work. It was unable to mount its Flash memory, which can store information even when the rover is shut off for the night.
An investigation is ongoing, NASA said, but the rover was performing normally as it scooted towards a small crater called Ulysses last week.
The journey to Ulysses is taking place over “difficult terrain”, NASA said, but as of Sept. 16 the rover was making progress. It made several drives in the five days before then, including a 98-foot (30-meter) sojourn the day after the memory problem.
Opportunity has spent more than 10 years roaming the Red Planet (it was originally designed to last 90 days). As of Sept. 16, it has driven 25.32 miles (40.75 kilometers) — almost as long as a marathon.
Its medium-range science goal right now is to arrive at Marathon Valley, a location that could have clay minerals in it. Clays are often formed in water-soaked environments, meaning this location could add to the list of ancient water-related finds that spacecraft have found on Mars.