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2016: A big year in space

Posted December 27, 2016

SpaceX successfully landed 5 first stage segments of their Falcon 9 rocket and plans to relaunch one in 2017 (Photo: SpaceX)

2016 was a big year in space. Gravitational waves were detected, lots of rockets launched and a few landed.

As of December 21, 2016, 244 payloads have been launched successfully. Three launches were unsuccessful: The NASA/JAXA x-ray observatory Hitomi, the Intelsat 33e commercial geosynchronous satellite, an Israeli reconnaissance satellite, and a Russian cargo flight to the International Space Station failed to reach orbit.

The United States regained the #1 position in the number of launches after more than 10 years in the #2 position behind Russia or China. Overall, 82 vehicles were successfully launched from locations worldwide, matching last years. China has 2 additional launches planned for December 28 and 30, which could end 2016 launch numbers in a tie with the United States.


SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon rocket after successfully delivering a payload into orbit five times. Three landing attempts failed and one mission never got the chance, as an anomaly during fueling on the pad destroyed the rocket and the Israeli communications satellite.

The company plans to refurbish and launch one of those recovered first stages in 2017. This will be a first for an orbital rocket. Blue Origin achieved relaunching their New Shepard suborbital rocket in January of 2016.

Robotic Space Exploration
The Curiosity rover continues to find more evidence that Mars once hosted a habitable environment. The odometer on the Curiosity rover passed 150 miles on Nov. 2 as it came upon a golf-ball sized iron-nickel meteorite. Other discoveries in 2016 include evidence that the surface of Mars contributes more than expected to the makeup of its atmosphere and the chemical makeup of Martian rocks pointing to a more Earth-like past.

Sand dunes

Sand dunes very reminiscent of those at Jockey Ridge State Park on North Carolina’s Outer Banks also led to discoveries about the density of Mars' atmosphere in the past. “You might almost forget you're on Mars, given how similar the sand behaves” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The European Space Agency experienced success and failure on Mars this year. The Trace Gas Orbiter portion of the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft is currently studying the outer atmosphere for signs of methane and other biologically important gases. On Oct. 19, entry, descent and landing of the Schiaparelli lander didn’t go as well. Failure in the automated sequence of the parachute and rockets led to the craft impacting the surface at over 180 miles per hour.

Among the 22 American launches was NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission which is currently en route to the asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-Rex will grab a sample of the asteroid and return to Earth in 2023, providing valuable insight into the solar system at the time of its formation.

The Juno mission arrived at Jupiter and but the shift to science orbit didn’t go as planned. A problem in helium values has impacted the main engine preventing the planned reduction in the far sweeping orbit around Jupiter from 53.5 days to the planned 14 days. The team plans to continue gathering science with the wider orbit for now.

Researchers at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of the closest Earth-like planet yet. Just 1.3 times the mass of Earth and inside its star’s habitable zone, Proxima b is just 4.2 light years away.

Gravitational waves

The biggest astronomy event of 2016 is also the biggest story in science for the year: the announcement that gravitational waves had been detected. Researchers at a specially built observatory in Louisiana “heard” ripples in space-time, 100 years after Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted them. Seven milliseconds later a twin observatory in Oregon detected the same waves coming from collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago.

The discovery ushers in a new field of astronomy with a new way to observe the universe. Astronomy began with observation in the visible-light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. New technologies which have enabled observation in other parts of the spectrum including radio, gamma and x-rays, have also enabled new discoveries. These methods can observe only 10% of mater in the universe. Gravitational astronomy is anticipated to change that.

Additional observatories are planned in India, Japan and Europe.

Next week, a look ahead to 2017 for the best astronomy and spaceflight events, including a total eclipse.


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