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The Year in Review: Space

Dec 31, 2014 03:54 PM EST
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If you have been following the headlines, then you very well know that this was a brilliant year for space exploration. There were hardships and tragedies along the way, but it certainly must be acknowledged that humanity has come very far, and is closer than ever before to becoming a multi-planet species and civilization.

A Series of "Firsts"

The headliner space event for 2014 was, without a doubt, the historic touchdown of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Philae lander.

No, this little robot wasn't this season's star football player. Instead, Philae made history after it deployed from the Rosetta spacecraft in order to land directly on the surface of the massive comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, fondly referred to as the "rubber ducky" comet.

This occurred only weeks after the Rosetta spacecraft finally caught up to the comet, hurtling through our solar system at more than more than 3,400 mph.

That meeting was a stunning 10 years, five months, and four days in the making, and was only made possible with the leadership of the ESA and a joint effort between numerous divisions of the ESA, NASA, and many other nations' space agencies. (Scroll to read on...)

Philae alights on comet 67P
(Photo : ESA/ATG medialab) Philae alights on comet 67P... only to BOUNCE soon after. Learn more here.

But why chase and land on a comet in the first place?

"It is the essence of what it means to be human, to attempt difficult things, to reach for seemingly impossible goals, to learn, adapt and evolve," the ESA announced with the release of a stunning short film that glorifies the achievement, called Ambition.

They also hope to learn from the comet. With titanic hunks of ancient space dust and ice, comets like Rosetta's quarry are physical snapshots in time, holding clues to how things were during the very beginnings of our solar system. Scientists now hope to gain invaluable knowledge about the origins of water on Earth using data only Rosetta and Philae can obtain.

The Search Goes On

And a better understanding of how oceans form will in turn help experts highlight exoplanets that could play host to alien life.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, has long been a favorite pastime for stargazers, but for some time now the United States Congress has been serious about supporting the cause. That may be in part because some of the world's most brilliant minds are very passionate about the subject, and are convinced that even if there is not whole other complex civilizations out there among the stars, there has to be something.

That's a belief NASA reaffirmed this year, agreeing with SETI experts that it isn't much of a stretch to assume that we could find alien life within the next few decades. The agency adds that 10 to 20 percent of all the stars in the sky could host habitable worlds, with scientist Matt Mountain adding that "it's within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever."

Bumps in the Road

However, before such a world-shaking discovery is made, there are a great deal of obstacles that still must be overcome.

It was also discovered this year that there are far fewer friendly stars with potentially habitable worlds than we once thought, learning that solar wind and climate conditions make many "goldilocks" Earth-like worlds unlikely candidates for life. (Scroll to read on...)

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope finally had an opportunity to prove its worth this year after it recently discovered a brand-new exoplanet. This is after the spacecraft telescope saw difficulties in 2013 that forced it to abandon its initial mission.
(Photo : NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle) NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope finally had an opportunity to prove its worth this year after it recently discovered a brand-new exoplanet. This is after the spacecraft telescope saw difficulties in 2013 that forced it to abandon its initial mission.

And even if we do identify a world that could support life, humanity is still a long way away from getting there. As things stand, we haven't even left Earth's orbit, and are just now setting our sights on improved human space travel.

As it often is when a tyke first loses his training wheels, this year has seen some disaster with space flight.

"Rockets are tricky," billionaire-entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted back in August after one of his company's reusable Falcon rockets self destructed a few seconds into a test launch.

The company, SpaceX, was one of two companies that were awarded a massive US government contract to help taxi astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) just last September, ushering in what many are calling "a new era" for private space industry.

However, this era also began with disaster. SpaceX competitor Orbital Sciences suffered a massive setback just last October, after one of their unmanned supply deliveries to the ISS fell mid-liftoff, resulting in a tremendous explosion.

[Credit: Brad Panovich via NASA live stream]

Not even three days later, Virgin Galactic suffered from an absolute tragedy, where one pilot died and another was injured in a crash of their prototype SpaceShipTwo during testing in the Mojave desert.

"I truly believe that humanity's greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain," Sir Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, later wrote in a blog post. "We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and teams here by learning from this tragedy. Only then can we move forwards, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavour."

Reaching for the Stars

Still, at the end of the day, 2014 saw humanity get closer to the heavens than ever before, especially concerning NASA's stunning success with the Orion spacecraft's first flight test.

That's the craft that the agency hopes to see carrying humans to Mars in a decade's time, lifted into deeper space than we have ever gone before with the help of the Space Launch System - the world's most powerful rocket. 2014 saw the official start of construction of that rocket, and its first flight is expected to occur no later than Nov. 2018.

I don't know about you, but I think that this was one impressive year for space travel and understanding, and I certainly can't wait to see what 2015 will ring in. Happy New Year, Earth.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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