2014 was indeed a remarkable year for space exploration breakthroughs with some remarkable discoveries. Here's an overview of top five discoveries and groundbreaking forays made in space this year.
First probe landing on a comet
Our first space exploration breakthroughs is the first probe landing on a comet. On 12th November, 10 years after departing from Earth, the European Space Agency (ESA) lander "Philae" became the first probe to land on a comet. Philae left its spacecraft, Rosetta, and landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta captured the first image of Philae landing on the comet on its navigation camera.
With its own official Twitter account, Philae was able to communicate to us its first-hand experience on the comet. After getting its feet on the ground, the lander tweeted the first image of its new home, a site the world had been waiting for.
Launch of the Orion Space Capsule
Our second space exploration breakthroughs is that for the first time in a generation, NASA is building a new human spacecraft that will usher in a new era of space exploration. NASA's Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they've ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
In the morning of 4th December, the Orion space capsule lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Florida. Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt where it experienced high
periods of radiation, and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. Orion also hit speeds of 20,000 mph and weathered temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered Earth's atmosphere. Four and a half hours later the capsule re-entered the Earths atmosphere and landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Curiosity rover finds organic molecules on Mars
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity made its first historical detection of organic molecules, that might be the product of past or present life on the Red Planet. This discovery means that Mars may have one had conditions favorable to hosting life.
The rover measured a spike in levels of the organic chemical methane in the local atmosphere of its research site. Additionally, Curiosity detected other organic molecules in drill samples from a mudstone that once sat at the bottom of the lake that filled Gale crater in Mars' ancient past.
Methane has previously been detected in the martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and orbital missions at the red planet. However, methane levels measured by Curiosity at Gale crater have shown only a small fraction of methane in the air.
The new measurements showed a tenfold increase in local methane levels. The methane was short-lived and decreased to previous levels shortly after it appeared.
This temporary increase in methane - sharply up and then back down - tells us there must be some relatively localized source. There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock. Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, in a recent press release from NASA JPL
Methane is important because it is an organic molecule often produced by life on Earth. However, methane is not proof of life because it can also be produced by many different processes that do not involve living organisms. Even so, the finding proves that present-day Mars is an active world.
The First Earth-Sized, Habitable Zone Planet
In April 2014, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a faraway planet that's perhaps the most Earth-like yet discovered.
Using NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the habitable zone - the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun. While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth. Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.
Astronauts Print First 3-D Object in Space
NASA and officials with Made In Space Inc., the company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer, said the process may change how the way ISS crews get replacement tools and parts. This is a very important breakthrough as specialist tools are often required on board the space station. Now they can be "beamed" aboard and printed instead of being sent via shuttle. The technology will also be vital for loger travels to Mars.
The first printed object was a simple plaque reading "Made in Space NASA". Later parts include a 3d printed ratchet wrench.
The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth, NASA said.
Stay tuned for more exciting space exploration breakthroughs in 2015!