Spaceflight Insider

2014: The SpaceFlight year in review

NASA Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 NASA Orion United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

The year 2014 will be marked a banner year for NASA - one that saw the first steps toward having the space agency send crews to missions beyond-Earth orbit. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

As we prepare for a new year, often times we look back at the year that we have left behind. So in keeping with tradition, SpaceFlight Insider would like to take a few moments to look back on the space-related events that have taken place in 2014 – as well as consider what is yet to come in 2015. In terms of space exploration – 2014 had it all, spectacular accomplishments, shattering failures, as well as points in time that were both unprecedented and unexpected. Starting with the most recent events first – this is what happened in 2014.

Just this past month, on Dec. 5, the first test launch of NASA’s Orion capsule, which is planned to be an integral part of NASA’s goal of a manned expedition to the planet Mars.  After a textbook launch (after conditions forced a scrub on Dec. 4) of the Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion’s first flight saw it complete two orbits on a mission that lasted for about 4.5 hours before an almost perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean just off the California Coast.

As most who follow space matters are aware, Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1 ) was conducted to test out key systems on Orion which include the heat shield, the parachutes, avionics – and more. There were other secondary experiments that were also onboard Orion when it took to the skies.

NASA Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 United Launch Alliance ULA Delta IV Heavy Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Orion spacecraft utilized the most powerful rocket in the U.S. arsenal to conduct the EFT-1 mission – the Delta IV Heavy. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

One of these was an experiment regarding the effects of radiation exposure on astronauts, which was designed by students as part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Initiative to get the younger generation involved in spaceflight, among other things.

In preparation for the journey to Mars, unmanned probes are, as they have been for 40 years now, investigating conditions on the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun, and in July, NASA announced the development of the Mars 2020 Rover, which is based on the Curiosity rover but will have more, advanced capabilities.

Speaking of Curiosity, December was a particularly exciting month for the rover as it discovered the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere and also found other organic compounds in rock samples that the robotic geologist had taken with its arm.  While the presence of methane is not proof of life, it suggests that conditions may have once been favorable for microbes to exist.  That was not all however. Curiosity also observed sedimentary deposits near its landing site in Gale Crater that were placed there many millions of years in the past and which eventually formed Mt. Sharp which rises from the center of the crater.

“We will keep working on the puzzles these findings present,” said John Grotzinger, a Curiosity project scientist from Caltech. “Can we learn more about the active chemistry causing such fluctuations in the amount of methane in the atmosphere? Can we choose rock targets where identifiable organics have been preserved?”

Red skies above

The exploration of Mars continues in the air as well as on the surface. The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution ) began orbiting Mars on Sept. 21 to analyze the composition of the atmosphere. MAVEN was launched in November of 2013 on a mission that is planned to last one year.

The positions of the ground-based and orbiting Martian probes even allowed scientists to observe the rare flyby of a comet as it passed the Red Planet in October on its way to the Sun. Thanks to the Comet Siding Spring C/2013 A1 was found to have altered the planet’s atmosphere after it had passed. Events in and around the Martian gravitational sphere were not the only events that took place in terms of space exploration in 2014.

orbcomm_engines_tight SpaceX photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX and Orbital managed to complete several resupply missions to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA announced in September that SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft had been selected to begin ferrying American crews to and from the ISS starting in 2017. This went over less-than-well with the third competitor under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program – Sierra Nevada Corporation. With the company’s Dream Chaser space plane out of the running, the company filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A final determination should be rendered by the GAO some time after Jan. 5.

Meanwhile aboard the space station, astronauts performed a myriad of experiments to gather data regarding a wide range of fields of interest, especially in regards to long-term stays in space. One of the more unique thins that were tested out this year on the station – was the emerging field of additive manufacturing. More commonly known as “3D printing” – the process could be of great benefit to the space agency as it presses out into the solar system and a number of tools and other items have already been printed on orbit. The 16 members collaborating on the station have made steps toward developing an array of skills that will be required if astronauts are to explore the solar system. ISS operations will continue to be supported by the United States until 2024, at a minimum.

Modifications to the station have begun which will allow for the docking of commercially-produced manned craft as those programs move ahead.  Several commercial resupply craft, produced by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, have already docked with the station, bringing more than 25 tons of cargo to the orbiting lab, spread out over 8 successful launches by the two firms.

Not everything has gone perfectly with the CRS program however. Orbital Sciences suffered the loss of one of its cargo flights due to a failure of a turbopump in one of the two AJ-26 rocket engines that powered the Antares rocket used by Orbital during liftoff. The accident remains under investigation. Despite the setback, Orbital Sciences plans to continue launching cargo to the ISS using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 441 booster.

Innovation at NASA reveled itself in a number of efforts carried out by the space agency.

In June, NASA began testing the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD ) that is designed to allow for the safe touchdown of heavy, large cargo upon reentry. Other technologies that the space agency researched in the past year included the PhoneSat, a small satellite that can be controlled by means of a smartphone app.

Tying in with the development and testing of the Orion craft, the development of NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System (SLS) is underway. NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility has been outfitted to begin construction on the rocket, which will be the most powerful launch platform ever built.

Given environmental concerns, NASA also looked into alternative fuels and tanks for use on spacecraft.  Chemicals like Hydrazine, though effective, are also extremely toxic, leading to a desire for alternatives.

Remembering the past

It is hard to move forward without acknowledging the past. This year, in recognition of his accomplishments during the early days of the space age, the Dryden Flight Research Center located in Edwards, California was renamed on March 1 to become the (Neil) Armstrong Flight Research Center.

NASA has been directed to embark on a program called ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission) in which scientists hope to “capture” an asteroid near Earth and move it into a stable orbit around the Moon. The hope is that NASA can gather information about placing craft above Mars in preparation for manned missions. One proposed method of capture would envelope the entire body in a sort of balloon or sling, while another would seek to lift a small rock or boulder from an asteroid’s surface.  To date, each of the 2 methods has 3 potential asteroids for possible testing.  With over 12,000 near-Earth objects currently identified, that number is expected to increase as development continues.

Other worlds, other opportunities

February saw the announcement of 715 new exoplanets found by the Kepler Observatory, and in April, Kepler discovered its first Earth-sized planet orbiting its host star in the “Habitable Zone”, or at the right distance from its star for liquid water to accumulate on the surface. This may not be Earth’s twin, but scientists appear close to finding a planet like our own around some far-flung star.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft passes by the dwarf planet Pluto on the outskirts of the solar system. Image Credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

The NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) spacecraft continues to provide information on the way stars explode in Supernovae and the manner in which the radioactive material moves after the explosions.

The Van Allen Probes completed 2 years of operation.  In 2012, the probes discovered a 3rd radiation belt surrounding the Earth. Scientists are still studying the data and learning more about this area surrounding Earth.

Research continued above the surface of the Sun as well.  The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) provided new data concerning heat distribution in the corona, which is actually hotter than the Sun’s core.  IRIS also gives us insight into the nature and movement of solar wind, the particles and energy given off by the Sun.

Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) revealed a magnetic field at a right angle to the Solar System’s movement through the galaxy, which led to an understanding of cosmic ray measurements relative to our position orbiting the Sun.

The New Horizons probe drew closer to the dwarf planet Pluto after a 9 year journey and revived itself from hibernation in preparation for its encounter with the distant frozen world in the New Year. The probe is moving too fast to slow down into a long duration orbit so this mission is strictly a flyby, gathering as much data as it can. New Horizons will then move on to another Kuiper belt object, studying that before exiting the solar system, following Voyager, the probe that preceded New Horizons in flight – by 36 years.

James Webb Space Telescope NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has made progress to the oft-delayed and nearly cancelled James Webb Space Telescope. If the spacecraft remains on schedule – it should launch in 2018. Photo Credit: Emmett Given / NASA

Construction began on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Once completed and launched in 2018, the Webb Telescope is expected to succeed the Hubble Telescope. The JWST will study deep space objects with a clarity that has never before been achieved.

In the end, 2014 will be viewed as a banner year for the space agency with all signs pointing to no slowing down.

“We continued to make great progress on our journey to Mars this year, awarding contracts to American companies who will return human space flight launches to U.S. soil, advancing space technology development; and successfully completing the first flight of Orion, the next deep space spacecraft in which our astronauts will travel,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We moved forward on our work to create quieter, greener airplanes and develop technologies to make air travel more efficient; and we advanced our study of our changing home planet, Earth, while increasing our understanding of others in our solar system and beyond.”

Video courtesy of NASA


This article was written by Joe Latrell and Steve Shurtleff – stay tuned to SpaceFlight Insider for more of their articles

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SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.

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