2015 was a year in which robotic spacecraft made some startling discoveries, including finding the first evidence of flowing water on Mars and providing the first close-up glimpses of the distant dwarf planet Pluto. But it also saw some breakthroughs that may foster future missions for human exploration of the cosmos. And of course, there were a few glitches and amusing developments as well. Here are some of the highlights.
First Close-Up Glimpses of Pluto
The dwarf planet Pluto long had been a fuzzy speck on the edge of the solar system. But in July, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7,800 miles (12,553 kilometers) of Pluto and provided the first startling pictures of Pluto's surface, including tall mountains and glaciers formed from nitrogen ice. Here's a NASA gallery of New Horizons images.
Dead Galaxies, Kept Alive by Dark Matter
Astronomers used a computer simulation to solve one of the more perplexing mysteries of the distant past. After a bunch of galaxies were quenched in a collision with the Coma cluster 7 to 10 billion years ago, why weren't their stars strewn across space? The computer simulation showed that the dead galaxies remained stable because they had 100 times more dark matter than visible matter, providing more evidence of dark matter's importance in the universe.
"The Martian" Revives Public Interest in Exploring Mars
The movie version of Andy Weir's 2011 novel, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, attracted a big audience, grossing more than $220 million in domestic ticket sales as of early December. But the film also provided an impressive demonstration of the survival technology that actual astronauts would utilize on a manned Mars mission. "Hopefully, it'll show people that, guys, okay, we've got the stuff," Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin told HowStuffWorks."Let's do it."
Force Fields to Protect Astronauts in Space?
One of the potentially lethal menaces of space travel comes from being bombarded with energized subatomic particles, expelled from solar flares and events such as supernovas. But European scientists are developing a potential answer — a superconducting magnetic shield that would protect astronauts, in a fashion similar to those force fields in science fiction movies and novels.
Space Observatory Turns 25
After its 1990 launch, the Hubble Space Telescope had a rough early going, which required a visit by astronauts to fit it with corrective mirrors to make it see clearly. But Hubble went on to make some of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy, from providing the best estimate of the universe's age to discovering black holes in the center of galaxies. Amazingly, its instruments are still working, and researchers hope to keep using it to make new discoveries possibly into the 2020s.
Space Junk — Not in My Living Room!
In August, an unfortunate homeowner in China's Shanxi province had what appeared in photos to be a massive rocket nozzle crash through his roof. The debris probably was fallout from a satellite launch at a nearby space center, and highlighted the persistent problem of rocket debris falling on inhabited areas in China.
Augmented Reality for Tech Support in Space
NASA is exploring the use of Microsoft's HoloLens by astronauts on the International Space Station; not for gaming, as is a popular use here on Earth, but to provide tech support. The ability to project complex data onto their visual screen could enable technical experts to guide them in repairing equipment.
Asteroid Mining Project Moves Forward
Planetary Resources, the four-year-old private space mining outfit backed by tech-celebrity investors such as Google's Eric E. Schmidt and Larry Page, is steadily moving ahead with its plan to begin exploring asteroids in 2018 or 2019 and extract mineral wealth from them by 2025. In April, the outfit successfully launched its first prototype probe, which tested the avionics, control systems and software that will be used for asteroid mining missions.
New Material Could Make Space Elevator Possible
Penn State University researchers recently produced ultra-thin diamond nanothreads, possibly be the strongest material ever developed. PSU chemistry professor John Badding says diamond nanothreads might just be the stuff needed to realize the more century-old dream of building an elevator that stretches into orbital space.
A Year in Space, Literally
Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are in the midst of spending 12 months aboard the International Space Station, longer than any human previously has spent in space. Their mission is giving scientists an opportunity to study the long-term effects of space on the human body. Scott Kelly's health data is being compared to information gathered from his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, and may also provide insights into everyday health problems such as cancer and diabetes, as well as the aging process.
Moon Dust as a Potential Source of Energy
An orbiting Chinese space probe currently is mapping landing sites for a 2017 landing in a search for helium-3. The latter might provide an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors to produce enormous amounts of energy on Earth.
Proof of Water on Mars
NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter enabled researchers to investigate mysterious streaks on slopes that seemed to change over time, flowing downhill during warm seasons and fading cool ones. They detected the signatures of hydrated minerals — evidence of a shallow flow of H2O. "Now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet," NASA scientist Michael Meyer explained on the agency's website. Here's a NASA animation of the seasonal flows.
NASA researchers confirmed the existence of the first nearly Earth-sized planet in the so-called habitable zone around a sun-like star. They say that Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent bigger in diameter than earth and is part of a solar system 1,400 light years from Earth, is probably a rocky planet, similar to ours.