2014: A space odyssey

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The first flight of NASA's Orion capsule was one of a number of 2014 space firsts (Image: NASA)

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It's been a busy year in space. In a mixture of triumph and tragedy, space exploration reached new horizons, tested new technologies, and pushed the limits of the possible in 2014. So as the old year draws to close, Gizmag looks back on the space highlights of the past twelve months.

Landing on a comet

It used to be said that getting to the Moon was like hitting a bullet with a bullet, but in August the European Space Agency shot a bullet at another bullet by making it skitter around several pieces of furniture and then end up orbiting the target bullet. That's essentially what happened when ESA's Rosetta probe went into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko – the first spacecraft ever to have achieved such a feat.

ESA must have Las Vegas showmen on its staff, because that wasn't a big enough finish. On November 12, Rosetta's washing machine-sized Philae lander became the first manmade object to touch down on a comet. Try fitting that into the bullet-hitting-a-bullet analogy and you'll get a headache.

Unfortunately, the solar-powered explorer suffered a malfunction in its landing mechanism and bounced several times before coming to rest on its side in a crevice. It went dormant about 60 hours later when not enough sunlight could reach it, though ESA hopes it will come to life in the coming months as 67P draws closer to the Sun.

Orion lifts off

Meanwhile, NASA sent its Orion spacecraft on its first mission, EFT-1. On December 5, Orion lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy booster on a four-and-a-half-hour flight. The capsule and its dummy service module flew on a two-orbit trajectory that took it farther than any man-rated craft since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. At its highest altitude, Orion traveled 3,600 miles (5,800 km) away from our planet. When it returned to Earth, it was moving at a speed of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h) and generated temperatures reaching 4,000° F (2,200° C).

The Orion was unmanned for this first flight, which was designed to test its flight system and the heat shield especially as a prelude to its next mission, which will be atop the Space Launch System (SLS) and will send it on a retrograde orbit that will take it around the Moon.

SpaceX powers down

Not to be outdone by the government space agencies, SpaceX made a notable first of its own as it executed the first powered landing of a booster rocket during an actual mission flight.

Last April, the CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Normally, the liquid-fueled Falcon 9 booster that launched the Dragon supply ship would have been left to unceremoniously crash into the Atlantic after doing its job, but Elon Musk's ambition is to eventually develop a completely reusable spacecraft and launch system. So instead of plummeting to a watery death, the Falcon restarted its engines and in a series of burns piloted itself autonomously before deploying its specially-built legs for a soft landing on the ocean surface.

Needless to say, landing on the water wasn't very healthy and the Falcon broke up, but not before sending back video and telemetry to help SpaceX engineers improve their performance the next time. So far, the company has performed two mission landings with a third scheduled for January 6.

Mars Orbiter Mission reaches Mars

The exclusive interplanetary spacefarer's club got a new member in 2014 as India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) went into orbit around the Red Planet in September. A technology demonstrator mission, it was remarkable because India doesn't actually have any launchers capable of sending a spacecraft to Mars. Instead, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) used a complex series of orbital maneuvers around the Earth to build up enough speed to send it on an interplanetary trajectory. It took over a year with most of it spent just going 'round and 'round the Earth, but it did the trick on the very first try, which no other space agency before it has managed in going to the Red Planet.

New Horizons wakes up

Going really far afield, another space mission is approaching the first-ever visit to the last unexplored planet in the Solar System – at least, it was still a planet when the spacecraft left Earth in 2006. Pluto may now be officially a dwarf planet, but it's likely to be treasure trove of information for the Kuiper Belt when the New Horizons probe visits it in July. Having hibernated for most of the almost nine years its been in transit to save on wear and tear, New Horizons woke up this month as NASA prepares it for five months of experiments leading up to a flyby of Pluto before heading off toward interstellar space.

Disasters

But 2014 wasn't all boldly going. There were disasters to remind us that space, and getting to it, is dangerous as well. On October 28, an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences set to send a Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS exploded on liftoff. Though the exact cause is still to be officially determined, it appears to be the Russian-built engines that were at fault. Then, three days later, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo was on a supersonic test flight when the wing booms prematurely deployed and the resulting stresses tore the spacecraft to bits, killing the co-pilot and sending the pilot to hospital.

Needless to say, investigations in both cases are ongoing.

3D printing lifts off

Just as it has on Earth, 3D printing technology is having an impact beyond our atmosphere. A magical box that can create spare parts to order instead of sending them up by rocket has obvious appeal to space agencies, so it isn't surprising that the ISS got its first 3D printer this year, which churned out its first object. ESA was so impressed that it's looking into printing out whole moonbases.

And if all that exploring, launching, power landing, and printing gets to be a bit much, astronauts in 2014 can put their feet up with a latte now that the ISS has its own espresso machine. Unfortunately, they'll have to wait until next year for the cups to arrive.

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