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.
British scientist Colin Pillinger (b.1943) died on May 7. Pillinger was the force behind the Beagle 2 space probe sent to Mars in 2003, although the probe burned up in the Martian atmosphere. Prior to that Pillinger had worked studying samples brought back by Apollo 11.
Astronomers have discovered the first known asteroid with a ring. Asteroid 10199 Chariklo, an asteroid orbiting between Saturn and Uranus, is the first object known to have a ring that isn’t a gas giant. The two concentric rings are dense, thin, and bright according to astronomers. The outer ring is 3 km wide and the inner ring is 6.5 km wide with a gap of 9 km between the rings. Chariklo is 250 km wide.
On February 26, NASA announced the discovery of an addition 715 planets found by the Kepler space observatory. These 715 planets are in orbit around 305 distinct stars and NASA has said that four of the planets orbit in the Golidlocks zone, where life is possible. THe new planets join nearly 1,000 previously discovered extrasolar planets and are from data collected by Kepler between its launch in 2009 and 2011.
China’s Jade Rabbit lunar rover, also known as Yutu, suffered a potentially mission ending breakdown which prevents it from hibernating during the 14-day long lunar night. If it does not enter hibernation mode, the rover may cease to function. The Chinese space agency issued a light-hearted news release, written as if by the rover, to announce the issue.