2014 Astrobiology Top 10

Categories: Missions News Brief

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover includes a sweeping panoramic view of its location in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater. The impressive mosaic was constructed using frames from the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Mastcam. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS – Panorama by Andrew Bodrov

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover includes a sweeping panoramic view of its location in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater. The impressive mosaic was constructed using frames from the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Mastcam. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS – Panorama by Andrew Bodrov

Last year was a tremendously exciting year for astrobiology, with a slew of new missions and many important discoveries about life’s potential in the Universe. As 2014 came to a close, Astrobiology Magazine counted down our ‘Top 10’ stories of the year as chosen by the astrobio.net staff. For anyone who missed it, here is the list in its entirety:

2015 Astrobiology Top 10

1. Curiosity’s Organic Discovery
Topping the list at number 1 is the discovery of organic molecules on the surface of Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover dominated this year’s Top 10 with three entries on the list. The rover made a number of incredible discoveries for astrobiology on the red planet, the biggest of which is the first definitive finding of organics on Mars. The molecules were found in a sample drilled out of Cumberland rock in Gale Crater. The discovery could shape the future of Mars exploration. Now, astrobiologists are trying to determine if the organic molecules are biological or non-biological in origin.

2. Humankind’s Robotic Footprint on a Comet
At number 2 is a story that captured the world’s imagination. After more than a decade en route, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission delivered the Philae lander to the surface of a comet.

3. Mars’ New Arrivals
Curiosity wasn’t the only robotic explorer making headlines this year at the red planet. At number 3 on our list, we highlight the arrival of new missions at Mars with the NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) orbiter. Humankind’s team of robotic Mars explorers continues to grow, ensuring that the red planet will continue to make big news in astrobiology.

4. A Putative Europa Plume
We enter the top section of the list at number 4 with the announcement of the Hubble Space Telescope’s potential detection of a plume of water at Jupiter’s moon Europa. A plume at Europa could mean big things for future missions designed to study life’s potential on the moon… but only if the plume really exists.

5. Curiosity Dives into Yellowknife Bay
Halfway down the list at number 5 is the Curiosity rover’s further investigations of an environment on Mars that could have been habitable for life in the planet’s ancient past. Curiosity discovered that environmental conditions at Yellowknife Bay, including the presence of water and chemical ingredients, were once suitable for life as we know it. Additional observations showed that materials in the area were formed by episodes of fluid circulation, increasing the likelihood that liquid water was present for relatively long periods of time.

6. Potential Super-Habitable World in Alpha Centauri B
At number 6 is the report of a potentially ‘super-habitable’ planet in Alpha Centauri B, the nearest star system to Earth. This magazine story makes the list as a ‘reader favorite’ at astrobio.net, with a high number of visits and shares on social media.

7. The Continuing Story of Water on Mars
Number 7 on the list are new discoveries concerning the scale and persistence of liquid water on the surface of ancient Mars. Scientists have long theorized that liquid water was once stable on Mars, but NASA’s team of robotic Mars explorers has provided stunning evidence for the extent of Mars’ ancient ocean and the length of time in which it covered large areas of the planet.

8. Life Lessons from the Solar System’s Edge
At number 8 is a story about what Joe Biden (or at least a dwarf planet named in his honor) could teach us about the origin of life on Earth. The Outer Solar System could also make big news in the year to come. NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt recently woke up in preparation for its upcoming encounter with dwarf planets and the Solar System’s dark outer reaches.

9. Lessons from Venus
Venus fills out the number 9 spot with two stories. The first story explains how our knowledge of Venus has been used to define a ‘Venus Zone’ around distant stars. The study could help scientists distinguish Venus-like planets from Earth-like planets in the Universe. The second story marks the end of the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission after eight years of exploration. Venus Express was an incredible success and provided researchers with a wealth of data about our neighbor in the Solar System.

10. Orion
NASA takes a big step toward future Mars missions with the test launch and ocean landing of the Orion capsule. Orion will one day carry human explorers to Mars and back, but the technology being developed for a human Mars mission could also expand our science capabilities at the red planet.