A great year for space science with many space stories to choose from, it was rather difficult to narrow them down to just five.
However, in our best attempt, we have listed below five top space-related news stories of 2017, on the basis of scientific impact made, media coverage received and public interest generated, not necessarily in that order.
7 Exoplanets Planets around Dwarf Star TRAPPIST-1
A study published in the journal “Nature,” in February, revealed at least seven exoplanets orbiting a neighboring ultra-cool dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1 in the relative proximity of 39 light years from Earth.
Discovery of three of these extrasolar planets was announced in May 2016, with this year’s findings bringing the tally up to seven.
Exoplanets, also known as extrasolar planets, are Earth-like celestial bodies outside our solar system orbiting the star/sun of another planetary system.
The discovery raised hope among believers that, after all, we may have company out there – somewhere on one or more of the exoplanets. If nothing else, it certainly provided the impetus for further exploration and study toward that end.
“I think we’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there,” Amaury Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and also one of the authors of the study had said about the discovery at the time.
“I don’t think anytime before we had the right planets to discover and find out if there was (life). Here, if life managed to thrive and release gasses similar to what we have on Earth, we will know.”
The seven exoplanets orbiting the solar system of TRAPPIST-1 have been named TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c, TRAPPIST-1d, TRAPPIST-1e, TRAPPIST-1f, TRAPPIST-1g and TRAPPIST-1h in ascending order of their proximity to TRAPPIST-1. The letter “a” is always reserved for the parent star and need not be mentioned with its name – it’s a given.
The planets are relatively close to the dwarf star and to each other and make up a tight cluster – in planetary terms.
The compact formation of TRAPPIST-1 and its seven known planets can be gauged from the fact that Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system, is six times farther from our sun than the outermost exoplanet is from its own.
Researchers believe that TRAPPIST1e, f and g are most conducive to some form of life because their individual orbits are located in what they call the “habitable zone.”
The three planets closest to the star, 1b, c and d, on the other hand, will be too hot to support liquid water and the farthest, TRAPPIST1h, too cold.
“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said back then.
“Answering the question ‘are we alone?’ is a top science priority, and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal,” he had added.
“The Great American Eclipse”
On August 21, a total solar eclipse – a celestial event that never ceases to amaze us – was witnessed by millions of Americans along a relatively narrow corridor of 70 miles, starting from Oregon on the Pacific Coast and stretching across the breadth of the country right up to South Carolina on the East Coast.
This grand spectacle of nature was visible on mainland America after a gap of almost four decades.
Also, not since June 8, 1918, had any solar eclipse been visible coast to coast across fourteen contiguous states – almost a century from the time it last happened.
The rare event received wide media and scientific coverage with numerous television channels and streaming sites providing live coverage to billions across the globe.
NASA TV and the space agency’s video podcast NASA Edge broadcast images using ground cameras all along the path of totality as well as cameras deployed on jets and high-altitude balloons.
Not only that, NASA even provided a space perspective to the event, covering the eclipse from the International Space Station (ISS), as well.
NASA had stated at the time that “never before will a celestial event be viewed by so many and explored from so many vantage points—from space, from the air, and from the ground.”
Death of Cassini
On September 15, in a NASA-orchestrated move, the unmanned spacecraft “Cassini” plunged into Saturn’s upper atmosphere and disintegrated, cutting off contact with the U.S. Govt. space agency at 7:55 am (ET).
It was the end of Cassini’s extended mission lasting 20 years in space – 13 of them spent orbiting the ringed planet.
The project – a collaboration between NASA, European Space Agency (ESA) and Italian Space Agency (ISA) – saw the spacecraft explore Saturn and its system, including a parachute landing of the “Huygens” module on the moon, Titan, in January 2005, and flybys of Enceladus, another Saturn moon.
The demise of Cassini marked the end of a historic Saturn mission, which helped scientists gain immense knowledge of the planet and its moons from oodles of information received via images and data beamed back by the probe during its 13-year Saturn sojourn.
In May, researchers published some 46 scientific papers in two separate journals explaining the first stream of images and data received from NASA’s “New Frontiers” space probe Juno, orbiting the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter.
Launched on August 5, 2011, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Lockheed Martin-developed Juno reached its mission target Jupiter in July 2016, covering a distance of 2.8 billion kilometers in five years.
Unprecedented information from the huge planet about its massive magnetic fields; its multiple atmospheric conditions appearing to collide with each other creating raging Jupiter storms; strange structures beneath the Jupiter clouds as well as multiple images of the planet have given scientists a whole new perspective of this giant of our solar system.
“There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter,” Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton said at the time.
Year of commercial space projects
While commercial space programs are not a novelty, 2017 witnessed an unprecedented number of commercial launches, surpassing government-sponsored projects by a fair margin – 41 commercial space flights as opposed to 28 launches under government contracts.
SpaceX created history on December 15, when it launched its recycled Dragon spacecraft, carrying a 4,800-pound resupply payload for the International Space Station (ISS), atop its previously used Falcon 9 rocket, taking the company another step closer, and a big one at that, to its goal of achieving total re-usability.
Never in its 15-year-history had Space X used a previously-flown spacecraft on a previously-flown rocket. It was also the first time, ever, that Elon Musk’s spaceflight company had used a recycled rocket on a NASA mission.
SpaceX has had a superlative 2017 with 18 launches to its credit, more than any other private-sector spaceflight company in the world.
Also, the December 15 recovery of the Falcon 9 booster made it the 20th successful first-stage retrieval for Musk’s space company with 14 recoveries this year alone.
The first-stage of Falcon 9 that returned after the spectacular evening launch on December 22 could also have been retrieved but was purposely allowed to plunge into the ocean.
Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin made its first launch of 2017 on December 12, launching a new capsule atop a brand new next-gen New Shepard, which lifted off from the company’s West Texas launch facility.
Blue Origin claimed the capsule had “the largest windows in space,” measuring 110 centimeters in height and 73 centimeters in width. The previous version had painted-on windows.
As is explained on the Blue Origin website, “the New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”
In addition to the capsule, there were twelve commercial, research and education payloads on board along with an “instrumented dummy” inside the capsule, appropriately dubbed the Mannequin Skywalker.
While the re-usable new booster made a picture-book propulsive vertical landing, the capsule touched down with the help of parachutes, with Mannequin Skywalker apparently unharmed inside its ample space.