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SPACE NEWS: 2014 RE-CAP EDITION

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By Jill Cassidy

THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN 2014

Orion Went In For The Layup And Nailed It, LeBron Style

When NASA announced plans for sending humans to deep space, they came a lot of Debbie Downers.  Even those “on board” were concerned the project would be over-budget and behind schedule.  This December, however, NASA sent one big “How You Like Me Now?” to the American public.  Orion went through the motions absolutely perfectly, blasting out of Florida, soaring past the Kármán line and splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.  Sure, it was just a test flight without red-blooded humans on board.  But it was also the first step in moving a dream to a reality.  The next time Orion heads to space it will be with astronauts on board, and the time after that will be to carry humans to an asteroid.  Takeaway here: NASA is trying to do some outrageously ambitious things on a famished budget (which could all fall apart at any moment), but if it keeps working, Orion’s test flight was the first real step on an incredible journey.

We May Not Be Alone (DUN-DUN-DUUUUN!!!)

In April, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet in a galaxy far, far away that’s very much like the Earth we know and hold dear (aka, it checks all the “habitable” boxes: same size as our home world, right distance from its parent star to have liquid water, &c &c &c).  Some might say this is one giant leap for mankind…

Unidentified Person #1: Could One Of Saturn’s Moon’s Be Hospitable To Life?

Unidentified Person #2: Ummm, Does A Tiger Have Stripes?

In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft beamed back images Scotty-style showing what appeared to be plumes of water vapor spewing from “tiger stripe” fractures near the southern pole of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s icy moons.  Fast-forward to April of this year when an analysis of gravity measurements taken by Cassini confirmed that a large reservoir of liquid water exists underneath Enceladus’s Winter Warlock exterior.  So, sports fans, what this means is Enceladus features a potentially habitable environment — and (kicker!), one that could be even more hospitable to life than Europa, current darling of the space community.

Okay, Europa’s Pretty Cool, Too

A recent geological survey of Jupiter’s moon Europa revealed that a massive, 20,000-square-kilometer portion of the moon’s surface had gone missing.  Before NASA threw up its lunch and called in Nancy Drew, researchers uncovered evidence that suggests a plate tectonic system (i.e., the reason Cali has so may quakes) may be moving old portions of Europa’s surface beneath adjacent plates.  But researchers were stoked about more than earthquakes and mountain ranges — if confirmed, the finding would make Europa the only known place in the solar system (apart from mother Earth) whose surface continues to be molded by active plate tectonics.  Tubular, brah.

We Landed On A Freaking Comet?!?!!!

Over ten years ago, scientists at the European Space Agency bid auf wiedersehen, adieu to a robot lander named Philae, as it set off on a mission with the Rosetta space probe to collect data about comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (<– how’s that for a name, eh?).  This November, Philae landed on 67P to much fanfare.  Philae settled in the shadow of a cliff where it’s currently waiting to see sunlight and recharge its batteries.  Spacefaring is the new seafaring — never before has a robotic probe had been placed on the surface of a comet and taught us things about the universe we never suspected.  Pretty dope, Europe.

REPEAT AFTER ME

What To Say When Your Better Half Asks You What’s In Store For The Space Industry In 2015 …

Venus.

NASA has plans to live on Venus.  Seriously.  But not on the planet’s surface – where we’d all spontaneously combust – but up in the clouds, in an environment that is remarkably “Earth-like,” according to NASA’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate.  The recently-unveiled plan to eventually set up permanent residence on Venus is called the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept, or HAVOC.  So what’s in store: floating cities that resemble the Goodyear blimp.  The plan has five stages, and the details are mapped out down to the minute.  If your sig. other still doesn’t believe you, tell him/her to watch this videoAnd, out.

(Always give credit where credit is due. I owe everything I know about writing to theSkimm. If you’re not a subscriber, you’re missing out.)

Image credit: NASA Langley Research Center

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