NASA engineer John C. Houbolt (b.1919) died on April 20. Houbolt proposed the idea of a lunar orbit rendezvous to NASA rather than having a single rocket make the trip from Earth to the Moon, land on the Moon, and return. When Houbolt’s ideas were dismissed by his supervisor, he sent a letter outlining them to an incoming administrator in 1961.
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.
NASA engineer Jack Kinzler (b.1920) died on March 4. Kinzler built the full sized models of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft used in preflight tests and created the flags and plaques left on the Moon by Apollo astronauts. When the Skylab heatshield failed, Kinzler created a fix using fishing poles that meant the astronauts would not have to do a spacewalk.
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.
A piece of the Earth’s crust dated as 4.4 billion years old, has been discovered on a ranch in Jack Hills, Australia, just north of Perth. The zircon crystal, which only measures 400 micrometers long, is a translucent red that appears blue when bombarded with electrons. The dating of the crystal indicates that the Earth cooled much more rapidly than previously thought and may have had water at a much earlier age.
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.
The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory has detected signs of water vapor being ejected from Ceres, the largest asteroid. The two plumes, which are in different regions of the asteroid, are probably sublimation of ice into clouds of vapor or ice volcanoes. Scientists have believed that Ceres might have water for more than thirty year, but this was the first proof.
China landed the Chang’e 3 probe on the Moon at Sinus Iridium on December 14 at 8:11 a.m. EST. The probe carries the lunar rover Yutu and makes China the third country, along with the US and the Soviet Union, the successfully send probes to the Moon. This is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 landed in 1976. China launched Chang’e 3 on December 2 and it has been in Lunar orbit since December 7.
In 1953, Fritz Leiber published The Wanderer, about a planet that moved through interstellar space, without a sun to orbit. Scientists have now announced the discovery of PSO J318.5-22, a gas giant located 80 light years from Earth that does not orbit a primary. With only six times the mass of Jupiter, the planet is believed to be 12 million years old, relatively young for a planet. The lack of a primary makes it easier for scientists to study the planet.
Former JPL Director Bruce C. Murray (b.1931) died on August 29. Murray served as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1976 through 1982, a period that saw the launch of the Voyager probes. While serving as director, Murray co-founded, along with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, the Planetary Society, in 1980, to support research related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach, and political advocacy.