It was nearly 50 years ago that Star Trek first dubbed space as “the final frontier.” Today, it’s still a frontier, but it’s a busy one. People from dozens of nations, as well as private industry, continued to explore the stars in the year 2013, both physically and virtually through the lenses of telescopes and the cameras of robots and probes. It’s an impossible task to distill everything that humans have done, seen, and learned about in space in the year 2013, but here are eleven notable stories from the final frontier that will still be remembered in the decades to come.
1. Voyager 1 Leaves The Solar System
On September 12, 2013, NASA announced that the probe Voyager 1, which was launched on 1977, had become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. By making a careful study of a coronal mass ejection from the Sun and how it impacted the space around Voyager, scientists determined that the tiny probe had crossed the “Heliopause” – the point at which the Sun’s solar winds are no longer powerful enough to push back the solar wind of other stars. This boundary is considered by astronomers to be the point at where the Heliosphere – space where the dominant influence is the Sun – ends, and interstellar space begins.
Despite its great distance from Earth, Voyager 1 still has power, and is expected to keep transmitting information back to Earth until sometime in the year 2020, when its batteries will finally run out. But the probe itself will keep flying – and if its ever discovered by intelligent life from another star, it contains a “Golden Record” of voices, music, pictures, and other types of information about life on Earth.
2. The Olympic Torch Is Carried Into Space
The 2014 Winter Olympics are being held in Russia, and the country its taking its role as Olympic host seriously. As part of the celebration, the Olympic torch was taken where no Olympic torch has gone before - into space. On November 9, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy took the Olympic torch outside of the International Space Station on a spacewalk. Two days later, Russian Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin returned to Earth, Olympic Torch in hand, and the Torch then went on to the rest of the Torch Relay.
In November, the India Space Research Organization launched its Mars Orbiter Mission, which is expected to reach the orbit of Mars in September of 2014. If India’s mission is successful, that will make ISRO the fourth space agency to successfully send a probe to Mars. Only the United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency have successfully sent probes to the Red Planet. India’s mission is interesting in that because it didn’t have a rocket capable of making a single push to Mars, the probe actually used the Earth’s gravity to build up energy like a slingshot to give it the energy it needed to make its journey to the Red Planet. It left Earth’s orbit about 25 days after launch. During that time, NASA launched its own Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which is also expected to reach Mars in November.
Unlike MAVEN, however, India’s mission was much less expensive. The total cost of India’s mission to Mars is estimated to be about $69 million. The cost of MAVEN, by contrast, is expected to be about $485 million. Granted, NASA’s orbiter has significantly greater capabilities than India’s, but the low cost of India’s mission has caught the eye of people in the space industry.
“India’s incredible strides in space exploration are a model for all of us who believe we can and should find the means to lower the cost of space exploration,” Jeffrey Manber, founder and Managing Director of space science companyNanoracks told me shortly after the launch.
As part of its 2014 budget proposal, NASA included an initiative to build a spaceship that would capture a small, near-Earth asteroid and then tow it into a stable Lunar orbit. That would then allow astronauts to travel to and land on the asteroid. The asteroid selected would be somewhere around 7 meters wide, and NASA has narrowed its targets down to 3 asteroids. NASA hopes to have an astronaut on that asteroid by the year 2025.
You can check out a video of NASA’s proposed project below:
5. A Blue Planet, A Pink Planet, And A Planet That Shouldn’t Exist
In July, the Hubble Space Telescope caught an image of HD 189733b, which is only 63 light years away from our solar system. That’s when astronomers noticed something unusual about it – it was blue. The first blue planet so far known to exist outside the solar system. Interestingly enough, the planet isn’t blue because of water, but because its atmosphere is full of silicates. Which means on this planet, it literally rains glass. Astronomers reported even more information about this planet a few weeks later, when the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton Observatory were able to observe it in the X-ray spectrum.
That wasn’t the only unusual planet found, though. Dozens of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) were studied in 2013. Among them was the possible discovery of a planet around the star TW Hydrae. If its existence is confirmed, that planet shouldn’t actually exist – at least, not according to current theories of planetary formation. That’s because if current models are right, then this planet is about 200 million years old. Which poses a problem, because TW Hydrae is only about 8 million years old.
And TW Hydrae isn’t the only planet making astronomers second-guess planetary evolution. Also discovered this year was GJ 504b, a planet about 4 times as massive as Jupiter about 57 light years away that’s colored a deep magenta. This planet is located about as far away from its star as Neptune is from the Sun. But at that distance, current models of planetary evolution say that planets shouldn’t be able to become as large as Jupiter, much less become 4 times more massive.
In November, NASA released the amazing photo above, which shows Mars, Venus, the Earth and the Moon in the background of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft. 141 wide-angle images from the probe were stitched together to create the complete picture. Cassini was launched in 1997, and has been studying Saturn and its moons for 9 years.
7. Chris Hadfield Sings Bowie
Veteran Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield had an amazing year in 2013. He became an internet celebrity thanks to some amazing videos on YouTube, as well as the amazing images he posted from the International Space Station to his posting breathtaking photos of Earth to his Twitter and Tumblr pages. He even helped facilitate a meeting between science fiction and science fact. In February, while still on the station, he had a fascinating phone call with Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. But perhaps the highlight of Commander Hadfield’s outer space journey was the way he capped it off: creating this amazing video of himself singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on board the International Space Station. You can watch the video below:
In February, Russians received their own visit from outer space when a meteorite exploded in the skies over the Chelyabinsk region. The explosion injured more than 950 people and damaged several buildings. The meteor, which was probably heavier than the Eiffel Tower before it burned up, was the largest space object to enter the Earth’s atmosphere in over a century. The meteorite exploded just as an asteroid, 2012 DA14, made a close flyby of Earth, although the two objects were unrelated.
9. China Lands A Rover On The Moon
Earlier this month, the Chinese probe Chang’e-3 landed on the Moon, along with its companion Moon rover, Yutu. This was the first probe to “soft land” on the Moon in 37 years, and made China the third country to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon. The autonomous Yutu will spend the next three months exploring and cataloging the Lunar surface. This was a big step for China’s space program, which is moving slowly but steadily in its ambition to explore space. Chang’e-3 is part of China’s overall effort to put a person on the Moon in 2025. The country is also currently working on building a space station in Earth’s orbit.
10. Orbital Sciences Makes It To The Space Station
Last year, SpaceX made headlines by being the first commercial space company to successfully send a cargo ship to the International Space Station. This year, Orbital Sciences made the delivery of cargo to the space station a competitive enterprise by being the second commercial space company to do the same.
Overall, this was a very good year for the commercial space industry. It saw the beginning of new private ventures, such as Inspriation Mars and World View Enterprises. Virgin Galactic is ready to launch its first commercial flights next year, and the company started accepting Bitcoin. SpaceX used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch a commercial satellite for the first time, and Bigelow Aerospace was awarded a contract for an inflatable addition to the International Space Station. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The commercial space industry continues to grow and meet new challenges.
11. Curiosity Determines That Ancient Mars Could Have Been A Home To Life
Probably the most fascinating discoveries in space came from the Curiosity rover, which celebrated its one year anniversary on Mars in August. The two-ton, nuclear-powered, laser-armed rover has as its primary mission to explore whether Mars was ever able to be home to living creatures. In March, NASA announced that the rover had been able to demonstrate just that – finding evidence that billions of years ago, the conditions were right for life to have survived on Mars.
The Curiosity team didn’t rest on their laurels, however. As the rover continued to explore the surface of Mars, NASA announced that there is currently water present in Martian soil. And just a couple of weeks ago, NASA published evidence that the area where Curiosity now roams was once the home of a habitable lake. Even more interesting, the results of this research showed that Mars was possibly habitable for tens of millions of years longer than had been previously estimated.
Although Curiosity itself isn’t equipped to find signs of life on Mars, it’s findings so far have provided a firm foundation that Mars once had the conditions to be a home for life. Future missions to Mars will seek to verify that there was once life on the surface of the Red Planet.
(Image Credits: NASA TV; NASA; CNSA)