WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

A look back at 2018's biggest moments in outer space

Posted December 31, 2018 11:15 a.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2018 11:35 a.m. EST

SpaceX launched CEO Elon Musk's personal Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload in the first launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket in January 2018

— 2018 saw beginnings and ends in space exploration from the sun to the edges of our solar system and beyond. There were successes and failures and even a pair of events that didn't go as planned but had very successful outcomes.

Saturday's launch of a Long March 2D rocket by China brought the worldwide count of successful launches over the year to 111, an increase of a third over the previous year.

China nearly doubled its previous launch record with 38 successful launches in 2018.

Russia successfully launched 19 of 20 attempts.

Each of the United States’ 20 launches from Florida, 9 from California, and 2 from Virginia were successful.

The maiden flight of a private Chinese rocket and the aborted launch of Soyuz MS-10 in October were considered failures. Though the emergency separation and ballistic trajectory returning cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague safely to fly again another day were very successful.

Robotic Exploration

After nine years including multiple mission extensions, the Kepler space telescope ended as its 3.12 gallon fuel tank ran dry.

The mission will be best remembered for the 2,662 planets it helped discover in the nearly 3,000 papers already published by scientists around the world. The Kepler mission taught us that small planets are quite around about a quarter to half of the stars in the sky.

The exoplanet hunting baton was passed off to Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in April.

While Kepler concentrated on distant, dim stars across a patch of sky about the size of your outstretched hand, TESS will focusing on the 200,000 brightest stars across 85 percent of the sky. This approach will enable more follow-up from ground based telescopes as we learn more about planets beyond our solar system and will more than quadruple the output of its predecessor.

The Parker Solar Probe, named for the astrophysicist who help create the field of heliophysics, launched in August and has already traveled closer to the sun than any other spacecraft.

The mission is expected to rewrite textbooks with new knowledge about the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, and help better understand solar winds to aid in forecasting of major space weather events.

NASA’s Voyager 2 became the second human-made object to exit the heliosphere - the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the sun, into into interstellar space.

Unlike its twin, Voyager 1 which crossed this boundary in 2012, Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of this gateway into interstellar space.

Mars

NASA lost contact with its longest lived rover opportunity on June 10 when a planet enveloping dust storm caused the solar powered rover to switch into a low-power mode.

While engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have pledged to continue listening for golf-cart sized robot through the end of January, contact from the nearly 15-year-old mission appears less likely by the day.

Outlasting the planned primary mission by a factor more than 60 is pretty good though.

The InSight lander survived the 7 minute descent through the Martian atmosphere to successfully land on the smooth planes of the Elysium Planitia.

Science operations have begun with deployment of the seismograph on December 19 and data collection of the rotation of the red planet via the landers radio connection already underway. JPL plans to begin burrowing into the Martian surface to collect temperature data in early February.

Within days InSight scientists surprised the world with the sound of Martian wind creatively recorded from vibrations in the solar panels via the seismograph and pressure variations detected by the onboard weather station.

This was the first sounds heard from another planet but wont be the last.

The Mars 2020 rover will have a pair of microphones onboard.

Art in Space

2018 was a year for launching unusual things into orbit, including a jar for mummified organs, a giant disco ball, and the boss's car.

A gold plated canopic jar topped with a bust of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American astronaut selected, was launched aboard a SpaceX rocket in December.

Lawrence was killed in 1967 in an unrelated training accident less than six months after he was selected for the Manned Orbital Laboratory program. The container, blessed at a Shinto shrine in Japan as a container for his soul, will orbit Earth for seven years.

U.S.-based Rocket Lab described its “Humanity Star”, a meter tall mirror ball described as "a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe” before its January launch.

In December, a Nevada based artist launched a 100-foot-long “Orbital Reflector”. Both were designed to be visible for a period of months before burning up on reentry and have been described as a nusdaince by astronomers. Atmospheric drag brought down Humanity Star within weeks and the Orbital Reflector is currently lost among the 63 other small satellites it was launched with. Among those satellites is the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s SeaHawk-1.

The biggest spectacle came in the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided his cherry red Telsa Roadster as a test payload.

A space-suited mannequin dubbed “Starman” is in the driver's seat with the car’s sound system playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on loop. The car is in orbit around the sun, continuing to increase the current 215 million miles from Earth at a rate of nearly 19,000 miles per hour.

Looking forward to January 2019

Just as we are ringing in the new year, NASA's asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will enter a 0.9 by 1.24 mile orbit around the 1,650-foot-wide asteroid Bennu, the smallest object any mission has attempted to orbit.

Scientist anticipate answering some long standing questions about our and other solar systems by studying Bennu.

Like other asteroids, it is the leftovers of the solar system formation process. Bennu is also valuable a target of study because it is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids. Latest calculations have a 1 in 24,000 chance of impacting the Earth on September 25, 2175.

The New Horizons spacecraft changed the way we look at Pluto and will again set records as it visits the most distant object.

On Jan. 1, New Horizons will arrive at 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule, another billion miles beyond Pluto.

New Horizons will be at its closest point to the Kuiper belt object, about 30 minutes after we ring in the New Year in Raleigh. It takes a while for that signal to return to Earth though. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has announced that despite the U.S. government shutdown, NASA TV will carry both live coverage of signal acquisition from New Horizons beginning at 9:45 a.m. EST New Years Day, a post fly-by news conference is at 11:30 am and preliminary science results at 2 p.m. EST on January 2 and 3.

On January 20, a total lunar eclipse will be visible.

This coincides with lunar perigee, the closest point in the Moon’s orbit to Earth making for a “supermoon eclipse”.

The partial eclipse will begin shortly after 10:30 pm, totality begins 11:41 pm lasting though 12:43, and the Moon will exit the darkest part of Earth’s shadow by 1:50 am.

Images:

SpaceXStarmanFH.png: SpaceX launched CEO Elon Musk's personal Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload in the first launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket in January 2018 (image: SpaceX)

PIA22487_hires.jpg: before and after images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show how dust has enveloped the Red Planet in August (image: NASA/JPL//MSSS

Humanity_Star.jpg: spaceflight startup Rocket Lab launched a reflective geodesic they called the Humanity Star, some astronomers called it "space graffiti".