Universe Today’s Top 10 Space Stories of 2014

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

Artist's impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet's atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
Artist’s impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet’s atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

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

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars! Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA
Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA

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

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)
Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

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

An artist's conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center
An artist’s conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

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

Artist's impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO
Artist’s impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO

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

NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)
NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)

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

The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30.  Credit: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30. Credit: SpaceX

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

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

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.

1. Rosetta

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

It’s been an exciting year for the Rosetta mission. First it woke up from a lengthy hibernation, then it discovered that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks a bit like a rubber duckie, and then it got up close and released the Philae lander. The soft touchdown did not go as planned, to say the least, as the spacecraft bounced for two hours and then came to rest in a spot without a lot of sunlight. While Philae hibernates and controllers hope it wakes up again in a few months, however, science results are already showing intriguing things. For example, water delivered to Earth likely came mostly from other sources than comets.

This 3-D Martian Picture Feels Like You’re Standing Beside The Opportunity Rover

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.

Check out more recent pictures below, including a probable one of Comet Siding Spring passing by Mars (which Bob King wrote about in detail earlier this week.)

“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.

A Martian mosaic showing "Wdowiak Ridge", which the Opportunity rover imaged Sept. 17, 2014. The rover's tracks are visible at right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
A Martian mosaic showing “Wdowiak Ridge”, which the Opportunity rover imaged Sept. 17, 2014. The rover’s tracks are visible at right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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.

Is this an image of Comet Siding Spring? It's the only fuzzy object in the field photographed on Sol 3817 (October 19) by the Opportunity Rover. Click for original raw image.
Is this an image of Comet Siding Spring? It’s the only fuzzy object in the field photographed on Sol 3817 (October 19) by the Opportunity Rover. Click for original raw image.
The Opportunity rover at work on Mars on Sol 3,817 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Opportunity rover at work on Mars on Sol 3,817 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An image of Martian terrain with the Opportunity's rover solar panel just visible at the bottom of the panel. Picture taken Sol 3,817 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An image of Martian terrain with the Opportunity’s rover solar panel just visible at the bottom of the panel. Picture taken Sol 3,817 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A dramatic, shadowy picture showing part of the Opportunity rover on Mars lit by the Sun (at top). Picture taken Sol 3,812 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A dramatic, shadowy picture showing part of the Opportunity rover on Mars lit by the Sun (at top). Picture taken Sol 3,812 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Opportunity rover's tracks dominate this image taken on Mars on Sol 3,807 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Opportunity rover’s tracks dominate this image taken on Mars on Sol 3,807 in October 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Compendium of Universe Today Comet Siding Spring Articles: January 2013 – October 2014

We present here a compendium of Universe Today articles on comet Siding Spring. Altogether 18 Universe Today stories and counting have represented our on-going coverage of a once in a lifetime event. The articles beginning in February 2013, just days after its discovery, lead to the comet’s penultimate event – the flyby of Mars, October 19, 2014. While comet Siding Spring will reach perihelion just 6 days later, October 25, 2014, it will hardly have sensed the true power and impact that our Sun can have on a comet.

Siding Spring’s Oort Cloud cousin, Comet ISON in November 2013 encountered the Sun at a mere 1.86 million km. The intensity of the Sun’s glare was 12,600 times greater than what Siding Spring will experience in a few days. Comet ISON did not survive its passage around the Sun but Comet Siding Spring will soon turn back and begin a very long journey to its place of origin, the Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto.

An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)
An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)

The closest approach for comet Siding Spring with the Sun – perihelion is at a distance of 1.39875 Astronomical Units (1 AU being the distance between the Earth and Sun), still 209 million km (130 million miles). The exact period of the comet is not exactly known but it is measured in millions of years. In my childhood astronomy book, it stated that comet Halley, when it is at its furthest distance from the Sun, is moving no faster than a galloping horse. This has also been all that comet Siding Spring could muster for millions of years – the slightest of movement in the direction of the Sun.

It is only in the last 3 years, out all the millions spent on its journey, that it has felt the heat of the Sun and been in proximity to the  planetary bodies of our Solar System. This is story of all long period comets. A video camera on Siding Spring would have recorded the emergence and evolution of one primate out of several, one that left the trees to stand on two legs, whose brain grew in size and complexity and has achieved all the technological wonders (and horrors) we know of today.

Now with its close encounter with Mars, the planet’s gravity will bend the trajectory of the comet and reduce its orbital period to approximately one million years. No one will be waiting up late for its next return to the inner Solar System.

It is also unknown what force in the depths of the Oort cloud nudged the comet into its encounter with Mars and the Sun. Like the millions of other Oort cloud objects, Siding Spring has spent its existence – 4.5 Billion years, in the darkness of deep space, with its parent star, the Sun, nothing more than a point of light, the brightest star in its sky. The gravitational force that nudged it may have been a passing star, another cometary body or possibly a larger trans-Neptunian object the size of Pluto and even as large as Mars or the Earth.

The forces of nature on Earth cause a constant turning over geological features. Our oceans and atmosphere are constantly recycling water and gases. The comets that we receive from the Oort Cloud are objects as old as our Solar System. Yet it is the close encounter with Mars that has raised the specter of an otherwise small ordinary comet. All these comets from deep space are fascinating gems nearly unaltered for 1/3rd of the time span of the known Universe.

Universe Today’s Siding Spring Compendium

2014/10/17: Here’s A Look At Comet Siding Spring Two Days Before Its Encounter With Mars

2014/10/17: Weekly Space Hangout Oct 17 2014

2014/10/15: Comet A1 Siding Spring vs Mars Views In Space And Time

2014/10/10: How To See Comet Siding Spring As It Encounters Mars

2014/10/08: Comet Siding Spring Close Call For Mars Wake Up Call For Earth

2014/09/19: How NASA’s Next Mars Spacecraft Will Greet The Red Planet On Sunday

2014/09/09: Tales Tails Of Three Comets

2014/09/05: Maven Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised To Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition Exclusive Interview With Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

2014/08/30: Caterpillar Comet Poses For Pictures En Route To Mars

2014/07/26: NASA Preps For Nail Biting Comet Flyby Of Mars

2014/05/08: Interesting Prospects For Comet A1 Siding Spring Versus The Martian Atmosphere

2014/03/27: Mars Bound Comet Siding Spring Sprouts Multiple Jets

2014/01/29: Neowise Spots Mars Crossing Comet

2014/01/02: Comets Prospects For 2014 A Look Into The Crystal Ball

2013/04/12: New Calculations Effectively Rule Out Comet Impacting Mars In 2014

2013/03/28: NASA Scientists Discuss Potential Comet Impact On Mars

2013/03/05: Update On The Comet That Might Hit Mars

2013/02/26: Is A Comet On A Collision Course With Mars

Comet Siding Spring: Close Call for Mars, Wake Up Call for Earth?

It was 20 years ago this past July when images of Jupiter being pummeled by a comet caught the world’s attention. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 had flown too close to Jupiter. It was captured by the giant planet’s gravity and torn into a string of beads. One by one the comet fragments impacted Jupiter — leaving blemishes on its atmosphere, each several times larger than Earth in size.

Until that event, no one had seen a comet impact a planet. Now, Mars will see a very close passage of the comet Siding Spring on October 19th. When the comet was first discovered, astronomers quickly realized that it was heading straight at Mars. In fact, it appeared it was going to be a bulls-eye hit — except for the margin of error in calculating a comet’s trajectory from 1 billion kilometers (620 million miles, 7 AU) away.

It took several months of analysis for a cataclysmic impact on Mars to be ruled out. So now today, Mars faces just a cosmic close shave. But this comet packs enough energy that an impact would have globally altered Mars’ surface and atmosphere.

So what should we Earthlings gather from this and other events like it? Are we next? Why or why not should we be prepared for impacts from these mile wide objects?

For one, ask any dinosaur and you will have your answer.

Adding Siding Spring to the Comet 67P atop Los Angeles provides a rough comparison of sizes. This images was expanded upon U.T.'s Bob King - "What Comets, Parking Lots and Charcoal Have in Common". (Credit: ESA, anosmicovni)
An illustration of the Siding Spring comet in comparison to the Comet 67P atop Los Angeles. The original image was the focus of Bob King’s article – “What Comets, Parking Lots and Charcoal Have in Common“. (Credit: ESA, anosmicovni)

One can say that Mars was spared as were the five orbiting spacecraft from India (Mars Orbiter Mission), the European Union (Mars Express) and the United States (MOD, MRO, MAVEN). We have Scottish-Australian astronomer Robert McNaught to thank for discovering the comet on January 3, 2013, using the half meter (20 inch) Uppsala Southern Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring, Australia.

Initially the margin of error in the trajectory was large, but a series of observations gradually reduced the error. By late summer 2014, Mars was in the clear and astronomers could confidently say the comet would pass close but not impact. Furthermore, as observations accumulated — including estimates of the outpouring of gases and dust — comet Siding Spring shrunk in size, i.e. the estimates of potentially tens of kilometers were down to now 700 meters (4/10th of a mile) in diameter. Estimates of the gas and dust production are low and the size of the tail and coma — the spherical gas cloud surrounding the solid body — are small and only the outer edge of both will interact with Mars’ atmosphere.

The mass, velocity and kinetic energy of celestial bodies can be deceiving. It is useful to compare the Siding Spring comet to common or man-made objects.
The mass, velocity and kinetic energy of celestial bodies can be deceiving. It is useful to compare the Siding Spring comet to common or man-made objects.

Yet, this is a close call for Mars. We could not rule out a collision for over six months. While this comet is small, it is moving relative to Mars at a speed of 200,000 kilometers/hour (125,000 mph, 56 km/sec). This small body packs a wallop. From high school science or intro college Physics, many of us know that the kinetic energy of an object increases by the square of the velocity. Double the velocity and the energy of the object goes up by 4, increase by 3 – energy increases by 9.

So the close shave for Mars is yet another wake up call for the “intelligent” space faring beings of the planet Earth. A wake up call because the close passage of a comet could have just as easily involved Earth. Astronomers would have warned the world of a comet heading straight for us, one that could wipe out 70% of all life as happened 65 million years ago to the dinosaurs. Replace dinosaur with humans and you have the full picture.

Time would have been of the essence. The space faring nations of the world — those of the EU, and Russia, the USA, Japan and others — would have gathered and attempted to conceive some spacecrafts with likely nuclear weapons that could be built and launched within a few months. Probably several vehicles with weapons would be launched at once, leaving Earth as soon as possible. Intercepting a comet or asteroid further out would give the impulse from the explosions more time to push the incoming body away from the Earth.

There is no way that humanity could sit on their collective hands and wait for astronomers to observe and measure for months until they could claim that it would just be a close call for Earth. We could imagine the panic it would cause. Recall the scenes from Carl Sagan’s movie Contact with people of every persuasion expressing at 120 decibels their hopes and fears. Even a small comet or asteroid, only a half kilometer – a third of a mile in diameter would be a cataclysmic event for Mars or Earth.

But yet, in the time that has since transpired from discovery of the comet Siding Spring (1/3/2013), the Chelyabinsk asteroid (~20 m/65 ft) exploded in an air burst that injured 1500 people in Russia. The telescope that discovered Comet Siding Spring was decommissioned in late 2013 and the Southern Near-Earth Object Survey was shutdown. This has left the southern skies without a dedicated telescope for finding near-Earth asteroids. And proposals such as the Sentinel project by the B612 Foundation remain underfunded.

We know of the dangers from small celestial bodies such as comets or asteroids. Government organizations in the United States and groups at the United Nations are discussing plans. There is plenty of time to find and protect the Earth but not necessarily time to waste.

Previous U.T. Siding Spring stories:
What Comets, Parking Lots and Charcoal Have in Common“, Bob King, Sept 5, 2014
MAVEN Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised to Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition
– Exclusive Interview with Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky”, Ken Kremer“, Sept 5, 2014
NASA Preps for Nail-biting Comet Flyby of Mars“, BoB King, July 26,2014