NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Ceres at approximately 7:40 ET on the morning on March 6, the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet. Ceres is the largest asteroid and the first discovered, on January 1, 1801. Originally classified as a planet, it was re-classified as an asteroid when it was clear that it was only one of many objects between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn previously orbited Vesta, the second largest asteroid and the fourth discovered, from 2011-2012. This is the first time a spacecraft went into orbit around two objects outside the Earth-Moon system. Dawn will begin its study of Ceres next month and will remain in orbit until 2016.
NASA has found the crash site of Britain’s Beagle 2 Mars probe, which disappeared while attempting to make a soft touchdown on the planet on Christmas Day in 2003. After losing radio contact with the probe, scientists assumed the probe had been destroyed, but the new imagery indicates that it is in one piece.
NASA has announced that astronaut Scott Kelly will spend a year aboard the International Space Station, the longest any American has spent in space at a single time. Kelly has already spent 180 days in space spread out over 2 shuttle missions and a stint on the ISS which was cut short when his sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Kelly will participate in a study of the effects of space travel on twins with his twin brother, Mark Kelly, also an astronaut, who will remain on Earth. Kelly will join an elite club of four cosmonauts who have spent a year or more in space on a single mission.
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Saturday morning’s SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 to the International Space Station was successful, but the experimental portion of the launch, in which the first stage of the rocket was meant to have a soft landing on a floating barge, was less than successful. The barge landing, which was to pave the way for future soft landings which would allow for the first stage to be reused, was a hard landing. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the experiment promised more success in the future.
The first flight of Orion, delayed a day, successfully launched, orbited, and splashed down on Friday, December 5. Orion completed two orbits of the Earth, including one at a distance of 3600 miles, more than 15 times higher than the International Space Station orbits. This is the first time a spaceship designed for humans has traveled that far from Earth since the Apollo missions. A little over four hours after launch, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
The Philae lander has touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, marking the first landing on a comet. The Philae was part of the Rosetta mission launched by the European Space Agency. Philae took about seven hours to cross from Rosetta to the comet before it touched down and launched harpoons into the comet’s head to anchor itself. Armed with ten instruments, Philae will help scientists learn more about comets.
Three NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mars, the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN, were sent signals to remain in orbit on one side of Mars while comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed within 88,000 miles of the planet. NASA feared that particles from the comet could endanger or damage the orbiters during the cometary flyby on October 20. The satellites were also used to gather data on the flyby, as were the rovers currently on the Martian surface.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has successfully inserted the Mars Orbital Mission (MOM) into Martian orbit, making it the first country to successfully send an orbiter to Mars on its first attempt. The cost of the mission was also just over $70 million, making it one of the least expensive missions to Mars. The mission will study surface features, morphology, mineralogy, and Martian atmosphere.
NASA has signed contracts with SpaceX and Boeing for the companies to provide transportation for astronauts from the US to the International Space Station. Since July 2011, when Atlantis last docked with the ISS, astronauts have been flying to the ISS on Russian spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. SpaceX and Boeing will be ready for launch in 2017.
Fan and scientist Brother Guy Consolmagno has been award the 2014 Carl Sagan Medal. The Carl Sagan Medal is for presented for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public. Consolmagno, who has been a long-time con attendee, works as an astronomer for the Vatican and has written Brother Astronomer and Turn Left at Orion. The Sagan Medal is presented by the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences.