December 28, 2013
Best Of The Best: The Top NASA Stories For 2013
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Every year, it seems NASA announces several exciting new developments or first-ever achievements and 2013 was no different. From entering into Martian surface to leaving the Solar System, NASA continued to leave its mark on human history this past year.
In January, the space agency announced it had identified 461 new planet candidates—including four that closely mirror the size and distance from the sun as Earth. The discoveries were made using data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which also had its mission recently extended to 2016.
"There is no better way to kick off the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life-bearing worlds," said Christopher Burke, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who lead the new analysis of the data.
In March, data from NASA satellites also revealed the closest star system to be found within the past 97 years. The newly identified system is a pair of brown dwarf stars that sit just 6.5 light years from Earth.
CURIOSITY ROLLS ON
Having landed on Mars in August 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover spent 2013 digging into the Martian surface, running tests and rolling around the planet’s massive Gale Crater.
In February, the rover drilled and collected the first-ever sample of Martian soil. An analysis of the first samples showed that Mars probably once hosted conditions capable of supporting life. The initial hole, which was approximately 0.63 inches wide and 2.5 inches deep, was followed by a second hole drilled in May.
The rover also made some significant drives across the surface of the Red Planet and in October the rover completed autonomous drives along a predetermined route.
“It feels great to brag about driving the most expensive car on the frontier millions of miles away,” Jeng Yen, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, told redOrbit in an exclusive interview. “Especially when I talked the rover driver experience with kids, they often asked me how I did the driving of the rover so far away, I often answered with ‘not much different with playing a video game.’ They all think that I have the greatest job in the world and that science is very cool!”
TRACKING TWO FIREBALLS
In February, a meteor measuring about 59 feet across and weighing over 12,000 tons exploded 14.5 miles above Chelyabinsk with a force approximately 30 times the energy of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Using satellite data and computer models, NASA scientists were able to track and study the debris field of the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February – giving them a better picture of how similar future events might affect the Earth’s atmosphere.
Russia wasn’t the only country to have a meteor disintegrate over its surface. In September, NASA confirmed a major fireball had streaked across the early morning skies of northern Georgia and Tennessee.
“Recorded by all six NASA cameras in the Southeast, this fireball was one of the brightest observed by the network in 5 years of operations,” NASA’s head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, Bill Cooke, posted in a blog.
INTERNET GIANTS SPAR OVER NASA LAUNCH PAD
NASA also found one of its assets to be the center of a fierce corporate competition as the Elon Musk-founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) clashed with the Jeff Bezos-founded Blue Origin over the use and maintenance of the space agency’s historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Blue Origin had filed a protest with the federal government over NASA’s process for awarding rights to use the launch pad – objecting to NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s comments that the company said showed the agency favored picking an exclusive contractor – the plan initially put forward by SpaceX. The Bezos-owned company had proposed a shared-use approach.
After the protest was filed, Musk said he would welcome the use of the launch pad by other companies during SpaceX’s proposed five-year lease, Reuters reported.
"I think it's a bit silly because Blue Origin hasn't even done a suborbital flight to space, let alone an orbital one,” Musk ridiculed. “If one were to extrapolate their progress, they might reach orbit in five years, but that seems unlikely.”
After the Blue Origin protest was struck down, NASA announced its decision to begin negotiations with SpaceX.
NASA UNVEILS SUPERHERO ROBOT
Just over a week before the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge trials in December, NASA unveiled its mechanized entry – a six-foot tall, humanoid robot named Valkyrie, complete with detachable arms, sonar sensors, mounted cameras, and a glowing circle in the middle of its chest, just like the Marvel comic book character Ironman.
In the competition, robots are asked to complete a series of tasks, such as driving a car, walking over rough terrain, attaching a virtual hose, and turning a valve. Essentially, Valkyrie was designed to operate in the same way a normal person would while under the control of humans who have only minimal training with robots.
NASA LEAVES THE SOLAR SYSTEM
Finally, NASA was able to claim this year that one of its crafts had left our Solar System and entered interstellar space. According to a report in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a model of the outer edge of the Solar System indicates Voyager 1 actually entered interstellar space about one year ago. However, NASA initially balked at the claim.
“The model described in the paper is new and different from other models used so far to explain the data the spacecraft has been sending back from more than 11 billion miles away from our sun,” the space agency said in a statement that made the case for a different model of the Solar System’s edge.
About one month later, the space agency reversed course and conceded Voyager 1 had indeed left the Solar System.
"Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind's historic leap into interstellar space," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we've all been asking -- 'Are we there yet?' Yes, we are."