2014 Astronomy Year in Review

December 30, 2014

We’re at the beginning of a new year; a great time to look back on 2014, a year of innovation and discovery in space science.

We have to start the list with Rosetta, because it was truly the year of Rosetta. Capturing the attention of the world, the ESA Rosetta project has provided some nail-biting moments in space exploration history. In August we waited to see if Rosetta would reach Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko safely and then in November the Philae Lander was released. An adventure spanning two decades and millions of dollars in research and development was always going to be dramatic but Philae gave scientists and the watching public more drama than anticipated. The lander bounced twice before finally landing in an unexpected spot, not the location carefully selected by a team of scientists. The lander completed the planned mission after 64 hours and is now in hibernation mode, waiting to be woken up to start observations again.

The images from Philae and Rosetta are stunning, and the ROSINA instrument has already found that the water on the comet is not the same as water on Earth, which casts doubt on the idea that Earth’s surface water came from comets. You can view the gallery of images from ESA here and keep up with the latest news at esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Rosetta

While Rosetta did capture the world’s attention for much of the year, there were many other exciting astronomical events and discoveries, including one involving New Zealanders. In July four New Zealand astronomers were involved in the discovery of an Earth-like planet in a binary star system. Located 3,000 light-years from Earth, this discovery expands the scope for where Earth-like planets can form and how they can be found.

The planet (OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb) orbits one of the stars in this binary system at almost the same distance that Earth orbits the Sun. The planet is much cooler however, because the star it’s orbiting is much dimmer than our Sun.

“Small dim stars are the most common in our galaxy and the majority of these are found in binary systems. They have much longer lives than our Sun and could potentially provide a stable habitable environment over very large time spans”, said Stardome astronomer, Dr Grant Christie.

“Now we have shown that planets like Earth can form and survive in these systems, it opens up exciting new opportunities to explore. Planets such as this are likely to be volcanically active so potential habitats for life could exist beneath the surface.”

Another popular astronomy story in 2014 was the two lunar eclipses. Weather didn’t always play fair on these nights but those who did get to see an eclipse were treated to a spectacular sight. These total lunar eclipses (April and October) made up part of a tetrad of eclipses. The remaining two occur this year but the first is a very quick eclipse and the second isn’t visible in NZ.

We also had news of asteroid ‘Pitbull’ just a few days before it flew by Earth. Coming closer to us than the Moon (still thankfully a long distance away), ‘Pitbull’ was believed to be as much as 4.5 billion years old! While technically a ‘close shave’, it posed no risk to us and wasn’t visible with the naked eye.

In other “objects in space” news, Comet Siding Spring paid a visit to Mars’ neighbourhood passing very close by the red planet. Although it didn’t hit Mars, the close encounter was captured by the probes and rovers observing Mars. You can view the images here mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring/images/index.cfm

Very early in the year India joined the space race and successfully launched and landed the country’s first ever Mars Orbiter Mission. This mission is noteworthy for many reasons, not least for the ingenuity of sending a spacecraft to another planet with a much smaller budget than that of NASA’s Maven Mars mission and with only 15 months from approval to launch.

Towards the end of 2014 a number of space missions dominated the news. Japan launched Hayabusa 2 on a return mission to bring back material from an asteroid. This is a follow-up to the ground-breaking Hayabusa return mission to asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Employing new and improved technology, the craft is due to return in 2020.

In early December the New Horizons spacecraft heading for Pluto was successfully revived from ‘hibernation’. Launched in 2006, New Horizons has spent about two-thirds of its 9-year journey conserving power to be ready for closest approach to Pluto in July next year – nearly 5 billion kilometres from the Sun!

Also early in December NASA successfully tested its Orion spacecraft. With a maximum orbital distance of nearly 6,000km, Orion is the first human-rated spacecraft for 42 years to travel beyond low Earth orbit. This unmanned flight tested shielding as it travelled through the high radiation of the Van Allen belts, and the heat shield and parachutes needed for re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Eventually the craft will ferry four astronauts to an asteroid in lunar orbit in the next 10 years, and then to Mars in the 2030s.

So after a year of exciting astronomical activity, we look forward to seeing what 2015 will bring. Keep watching this space for news and developments.

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