NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has published a video that contains highlights of important events and the space agency’s achievements over the year 2017. In the video description, NASA has stated that “2017: A year of groundbreaking discoveries and record-setting exploration at NASA. The Moon became a focal point for the agency, we brought you unique coverage of the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in the U.S. in 99 years, we announced the most Earth-size planets ever found in the habitable zone of a star outside our solar system, and more!”
Here are some of the year 2017’s highlights:
Great American Total Solar Eclipse
2017’s top story in terms of public interest for NASA was, by far, the August 21 total solar eclipse. It was one of the biggest internet events in recent history and the biggest online event NASA has ever measured. It was the first total solar eclipse to go coast to coast in the United States in 99 years. There were more than 50 million views of the live broadcast on NASA.gov and multiple social media platforms, and almost 31 million unique views on Facebook before and after the eclipse. These numbers mean the agency was able to share the scientific study of this celestial phenomenon with millions of people around the world, capturing a wealth of images before, during, and after the eclipse by spacecraft, aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station – seen in the image on the right as it orbited between the Earth and the Sun during the eclipse.
Moon, Mars and Deep Space
The Moon became a focal point in the year 2017. In October, the National Space Council announced a new human exploration goal for NASA. Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States has said that: “We will return American astronauts to the Moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”
The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are making progress toward human missions to the Moon and Mars, with the engines for the rocket’s first flight ready to go.
Earth-size planets outside our Solar System
In February, NASA has announced the most Earth-size planets ever found in the habitable zone of a star outside Solar System. After the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1, NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen said at a news conference that “the discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when”.
New discoveries on ocean worlds of Enceladus and Europa
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found a key ingredient for life in the ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, while Hubble Space Telescope gathered possible evidence of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Then, Cassini concluded its long-running mission: on September 15, 2017, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated. This method of disposal was planned to avoid potential biological contamination of Saturn’s moons, since Titan, Enceladus, and other icy moons of Saturn may harbor oceans and alien life.
Voyager 1, Still Alive
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which launched on September 5, 1977, fired its thrusters in interstellar space after 37 years without use.
First confirmed interstellar object travels through Solar System
A cigar-shaped asteroid became the first confirmed interstellar object observed travelling through our Solar System. This remarkable object was discovered on October 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program, which finds and tracks asteroids and comets in Earth’s neighborhood. When first seen, it was about 33,000,000 km (21,000,000 mi; 0.22 AU) from Earth (about 85 times as far away as the Moon), and already heading away from the Sun.
At first, scientists thought it was a comet. But its orbit was unlike anything ever seen before, and it was travelling at an unusually high speed: 85,700 mph (137,921 km/h).
The object was named ‘Oumuamua. The name comes from Hawaiian ‘ou.mua.mua, meaning “scout”, (from ‘ou, meaning “reach out for”, and mua, reduplicated for emphasis , meaning “first, in advance of”) and reflects the way this object is like a scout or messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us. The first character is a Hawaiian ‘okina, not an apostrophe, and is represented by a single quotation mark and pronounced as a glottal stop; the name was chosen by the Pan-STARRS team in consultation with Ka’iu Kimura and Larry Kimura of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Immediately after its discovery, telescopes around the world, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world were called into action to measure the object’s orbit, brightness and color. Urgency for viewing from ground-based telescopes was vital to get the best data.
Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width. The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.
“This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” said Meech. “We also found that it had a reddish color, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”
These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.
James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) completed its final phase of cryogenic testing – an important milestone in the telescope’s journey to the launch pad. NASA has described JWST as the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but not a replacement, because the capabilities are not identical. JWST will have the ability to see high-redshift objects, typically both older and farther away than previous instruments could assess. The telescope is named after James E. Webb (October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992), the second administrator of NASA, who played an integral role in the Apollo program.
It is being developed in coordination between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. It is scheduled to launch in 2019 and will be located near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point.Notes 1
JWST’s capabilities will enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy and cosmology. One particular goal involves observing some of the most distant events and objects in the universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies. These types of targets are beyond the reach of current ground and space-based instruments. Some other goals include understanding the formation of stars and planets, and direct imaging of exoplanets and novas.
NASA Builds its Next Mars Rover Mission
Mars 2020 is the next Mars rover mission by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. It is intended to investigate an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars, investigate its surface geological processes and history, including the assessment of its past habitability, the possibility of past life on Mars, and potential for preservation of biosignatures within accessible geological materials. The rover’s design will be derived from the Curiosity rover, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC aboard the MSL spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC. But it will carry a different scientific payload. It will also carry a total of 23 cameras: 9 for engineering, 7 for science, and 7 for entry, descent and landing.
On October 4, 2017, NASA has tested Mars 2020’s supersonic parachute, which will slow down the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph (around 19500 km/h, or 5.4 kilometers per second).
Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson set new records
American biochemistry researcher and a veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Annette Whitson (born February 9, 1960) now holds the records for the oldest woman spacewalker, and the record for total spacewalks by a woman. She is also the oldest female astronaut ever in space, at age 57.
In 2017, Whitson became the first female astronaut to command the International Space Station twice. On April 24, 2017, Whitson broke the record for most total days spent in space by any NASA astronaut, at more than 534 days.
In June 2017, Whitson broke the record for the longest single space flight by a woman which had previously been held by Samantha Cristoforetti at 199 days, 16 hours. Whitson was expected to spend around 290 days on orbit before returning aboard Soyuz MS-04.
Whitson returned to earth on September 3, 2017 having accrued a total of 665 days in space over the course of her career. This total was more time in space than any other woman worldwide and any other American.
- In celestial mechanics, the Lagrangian points are positions in an orbital configuration of two large bodies where a small object affected only by gravity can maintain a stable position relative to the two large bodies. The Lagrange points mark positions where the combined gravitational pull of the two large masses provides precisely the centripetal force required to orbit with them. There are five such points, labeled L1 to L5, all in the orbital plane of the two large bodies. The first three are on the line connecting the two large bodies and the last two, L4 and L5, form an equilateral triangle with the two large bodies. The two latter points are stable, which implies that objects can orbit around them in a rotating coordinate system tied to the two large bodies. Several planets have minor planets near their L4 and L5 points (trojans) with respect to the Sun, with Jupiter in particular having more than a million of these. Artificial satellites have been placed at L1 and L2 with respect to the Sun and Earth, and Earth and the Moon for various purposes, and the Lagrangian points have been proposed for a variety of future uses in space exploration.
- “The Moon Shines Brightly Among NASA’s 2017 Highlights” on NASA.gov
- “Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Dazzles Scientists” on NASA.gov
- ‘Oumuamua on Wikipedia
- James Webb Space Telescope on Wikipedia
- Lagrangian point on Wikipedia
- “NASA Builds its Next Mars Rover Mission” on NASA.gov
- Peggy Whitson on Wikipedia