Between landing a spacecraft on a comet 300 million miles away and the rebirth of the American shuttle program with a heavy assist from private industry, 2014 is shaping up to be a historic year for space exploration.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and its flagship journal Science dubbed the successful touchdown of the Rosetta’s Philae Lander on the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasiemenko as the scientific breakthrough of the year in Friday's issue of the journal.
“Much of the world held its breath while Philae made its descent and then bounced in the microgravity before landing in a less-than-ideal locale for recharging its solar panels,” Marcia McNutt, the journal’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an editorial. “For this historic first, we are happy to select the Rosetta mission as Science’s Breakthrough of the Year for 2014.”
The journal’s annual list of the year’s Top 10 scientific achievements also includes the discovery of 45,000-year-old cave art in Indonesia, a series of breakthroughs in decoding the evolutionary pathways between dinosaurs and birds, and advances in robotics that allow thousands of small machines to work in concert.
However, space stories have dominated science headlines for much of the year, despite the gutting of NASA budgets in the United States. The European Space Agency and private corporations have eagerly stepped in to fill the gap, and the public has been happy cast their imaginations heavenward.
Throughout the year, Monitor readers flocked again and again to stories from the great beyond. Here’s a recap of five of the top space stories on csmonitor.com.
- Readers couldn’t get enough of the Philae’s historic landing on a comet hurtling through space, from an unforeseen bounce off the surface of the comet, to the little lander’s race against time to transmit as much data as possible before its solar-powered batteries ran out. Check out the Monitor recap of the mission’s accomplishments.
- Between supermoons, blood moons, and lunar eclipses, captivating photos of Earth’s only satellite routinely dominated headlines and Twitter feeds throughout the year.
- Images beamed to Earth from NASA’s Curiosity Rover have offered never-before-seen glimpses of Mars. In addition to hints that water once flowed on the Red Planet, readers have been fascinated by some rather unusual Martian rock formations, including one that looked like a ball and another that resembled a thigh bone.
- The successful test flight of Orion on Dec. 5 represented not just the return of the US space shuttle program, but also the first step toward one day sending manned spacecraft to Mars.
- Public interest in outer space has fueled the rise of a brand new industry: private space exploration. However, the burgeoning industry has suffered several setbacks this year, most notably the tragic Oct. 31 crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, during which one pilot was killed and another seriously injured.