Science Year in Review
|Texture of landing sites. Upper left, the moon; upper right, Venus; middle left, Pathfinder 1997 Mars; middle right, Viking 1977 Mars; lower left, airbag imprint in Eagle Crater, Meridiani Planum 2004; lower right, airbag drag mark, Meridiani Planum, 2004 Opportunity site.
Image Credit:NASA/ JPL
The year in space exploration has offered a range of topics for astronomy and astrobiology. Astrobiology Magazine compiled its own list of top ten stories for 2004, and compares those choices to the broader agency list below. Exploration of Mars and Saturn was among the highlights mentioned in a review of NASA’s accomplishments over the last twelve months.
NASA’S ROVERS A BIG HIT ON MARS AND EARTH
NASA successfully landed the mobile geology labs Spirit and Opportunity on Mars on January 3 and January 24, respectively. Opportunity discovered evidence its landing site was a standing body of water in the distant past, raising the possibility key ingredients for life might have existed on Mars. In April, both rovers successfully completed their primary three-month missions and went into bonus overtime work. Spirit completed a two-mile trek to the Columbia hills. Opportunity descended into Endurance Crater and found layers of rocks bearing evidence of having once been drenched in water.
CASSINI-HUYGENS FIRST MISSION TO ORBIT SATURN
After a seven-year, two billion mile journey, Cassini-Huygens became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Saturn. The NASA, European and Italian Space Agencies’ mission found the planet roiled by storms, detected lighting, discovered a new radiation belt, found four new moons, a new ring around Saturn, and mapped the composition of the planet’s rings. Cassini flew within 745 miles of Titan, the closest any spacecraft has come to Saturn’s largest moon.
GENESIS CRASH-LANDS BUT BRINGS HOME PRECIOUS SAMPLES
The Genesis solar-sample return mission made a hard landing in the Utah desert, but NASA managed to preserve a significant portion of the precious samples of the sun it brought back from space. Genesis scientists believe they will achieve the most important portions of their science objectives, which should tell us about the conditions when the sun and planets were created more than five billion years ago. Genesis was launched in August 2001.
STARDUST MAKES HISTORIC COMET FLYBY
NASA’s Stardust mission flew within 147 miles of the comet Wild 2. Sent to collect samples, images and other data, the flyby yielded the most detailed, high-resolution comet images ever — revealing a rigid surface dotted with towering pinnacles, plunging craters, steep cliffs, and dozens of jets spewing material into space. Launched in 1999, Stardust is headed back to Earth with its payload of thousands of captured particles. The sample return capsule is scheduled for a soft landing in the Utah desert in January 2006.
Editor’s Countdown, 2004
10. Genesis: In the End
SPITZER SPACE TELESCOPE UNVEILS STRANGE COSMIC SIGHTS
The Spitzer Space Telescope pierced cosmic dust to reveal previously hidden objects. It unmasked a family of newborn stars whose birth was triggered by the death of another star; a dying star surrounded by a mysterious donut-shaped ring; a cannibalistic galaxy and what may be the youngest planet ever detected. Spitzer identified one of the farthest galaxies yet seen, measuring its age and mass for the first time. Spitzer was launched August 24, 2003.
SWIFT OFFERS NEW POSSIBILITIES TO SPOT BIRTH OF BLACK HOLES
NASA’s Swift satellite will pinpoint the location of distant, fleeting explosions that appear to signal the births of black holes. Each gamma-ray burst is a short-lived event, and Swift should detect several weekly. Swift, launched Nov. 20, is a mission with British and Italian participation designed to solve the mystery of the origin of gamma-ray bursts.
HUBBLE SEES FARTHER THAN EVER
Astronomers used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to take the deepest portrait ever of the visible universe. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field revealed the first galaxies to emerge from the time shortly after the big bang, when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe. The image should offer new insights into what types of objects reheated the universe. The image exposed galaxies too faint to be seen by ground-based telescopes.
AURA SPACECRAFT WILL HELP US UNDERSTAND THE AIR WE BREATHE
NASA’s Aura, a next generation Earth-observing satellite launched on July 15, is supplying the best information yet about the health of Earth’s atmosphere. Aura will help scientists understand how atmospheric composition affects and responds to Earth’s changing climate; help reveal the processes that connect local and global air quality; and track the extent Earth’s protective ozone layer is recovering.
JUPITER ICY MOONS ORBITER ENTERS DESIGN PHASE
NASA selected Northrop Grumman Space Technology, Redondo Beach, Calif., to co-design the Prometheus Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) spacecraft. JIMO will be the first NASA mission using nuclear electric propulsion. The system will enable the craft to orbit Jupiter’s three planet-sized moons, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. JIMO will perform extensive investigations of their composition, history and potential for sustaining life.
MOON SHEDS LIGHT ON EARTH’S CLIMATE
A NASA-funded study found insights into Earth’s climate might come from the moon. During the 1980s and 90s, the Earth bounced less sunlight out to space. The trend reversed during the past three years. The apparent change in the amount of sunlight reaching Earth in the 1980s and 90s is comparable to doubling the effects of greenhouse-gas warming since 1850. Increased reflectance since 2001 suggests change of a similar magnitude in the opposite direction.
Related Web Pages
2003: Year in Review
Solar System Exploration Survey
Mars Opportunity Rover
Mars Spirit Rover
Planet Ten: Beyond Pluto?