2014 in review

Below are notable space developments that took place during 2014. Because of the length of the list, it has been broken into quarters.  In addition, some general undercurrents of space science that permeated the year are listed at the bottom.

If you recall the list for 2013, this one is a lot longer.

[Updates: Jan 1 – minor editing, but no new content. Jan 3 – fixes in Q3 for MAVEN and MOM. Jan 5 – Q4 add Venus Express.]

2014 Q1

  • The new year started with a small asteroid 2014 AA entering the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 1 over the mid-Atlantic. With a diameter of 2-3 meters, it was discovered 21 hours before  atmospheric entry.
  • Thaicom 6, a GEO communications satellite, was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 on Jan 6. The Falcon 9 first put it into a 90,000 km high super-synchronous elliptical transfer orbit, from which the satellite then did a plane change and later altitude adjustment back down to 36,000 km.
  • Orbital Sciences Cygnus made its first supply run to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch had initially been delayed by a solar storm. Launched on Jan 9, it arrived at the station on Jan 12.
  • The ESA Gaia telescope arrived at Earth-Moon L2 on Jan 16, beginning its 5-year mission to chart a 3-D map of the Milky Way galaxy.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft woke up from two years of hibernation on Jan 20.
  • After 10 years of operation, Opportunity is still roving the surface of Mars. The rover landed on Jan 25, 2004. Its twin rover Spirit landed on Jan 4, 2004, and continued to operate until getting stuck in late 2009; its last communication with Earth was on Mar 22, 2010. By the end of 2014, Opportunity had traveled over 40 km (25 mi).
  • Cosmonauts re-installed UrtheCast ultra HD cameras on the ISS on Jan 27, overcoming earlier telemetry problems. The cameras are on steerable platforms and part of a joint venture with Roscosmos.
  • On Feb 3, NASA released an image of a hexagonal jet stream swirling around the north pole of Saturn. This newest view was taken by Cassini on Nov 23, 2013. The spacecraft is seeing it with improved clarity because of Saturn’s tilt as it enters its summer season.
  • The first four Dove spacecraft of Flock1 were deployed from the ISS on Feb 11. In total, 28 members of the flock were deployed during the month.
  • The Chinese Yutu lunar rover, while unable to move, came out of sleep mode on Feb 11. Over the coming months, Chinese scientists would find that certain instruments, such as ground penetrating radar and infrared imaging systems, were functioning normally.
  • NASA’s NEOWISE, the resurrected WISE spacecraft sans liquid coolant, discovered its first comet, on Feb 14. Comet C/2014 C3 was found about 230 million km from Earth, unexpectedly in a retrograde orbit.
  • Silicon Valley start-up Skybox released a video taken by its SkySat-1 satellite, showing its ability to transmit real-time HD streams. The video shows aircraft and ground vehicles moving at a major airport.

2014 Q2

  • Enceladus, a geologically active moon of Saturn, may have a large liquid water sea under its south pole. The report published in the Apr 4 issue of Science, is based on hemispheric asymmetry data from Cassini.
  • In March, Titan Aerospace was in negotiations with Facebook to be acquired as a step toward world-wide Internet access. But by Apr 14, the New Mexico high altitude UAV maker had been acquired by Google.
  • Falcon 9R, the three-engine successor to Grasshopper, made its first free flight on Apr 17, reaching 250 meters. The F9R has legs similar to those to designed for Falcon 9 v1.1.
  • A Falcon 9 first stage soft splashdown was completed in rough Atlantic waves on Apr 18, while the upper stage carried a Dragon capsule to the ISS. The video stream from the first stage was corrupted, and in late April, SpaceX asked for help from MPEG video enthusiasts to restore the image stream. Months later, a partially restored video showed the engine retro-burn near the water creating waves, and deployment of landing legs before the stage hits the water.
  • Kepler 186f is the first Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone of another star. Described on Apr 17, it orbits a red dwarf every 130 days, but probably has iron, rock, ice, and liquid water as Earth does.
  • LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, came to a crashing end on the far side of the Moon. It used its last propellant to swoop down closer than ever before, to sample gas and dust near the lunar surface, and then brought its six-month mission to a close.
  • The B612 Foundation released a study on Apr 22 that found asteroids hit Earth much more frequently than previously thought, with city-destroying ability possibly once every 100 years.
  • The NASA High Definition Earth View (HDEV) experiment became operational on Apr 30. Cameras on the ISS allow real-time viewing of the Earth over the Internet (at least on the day side of the planet). A private venture UrtheCast also has cameras installed on the ISS, but for more targeted audiences.
  • KickSat, a CubeSat containing hundreds of small sprite spacecraft, failed to deploy them on May 4 after the KickSat master clock reset itself to deploy on May 16, about the time of re-entry. Probable cause is radiation.
  • NASA Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed to NASA Armstrong on May 13 in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon. Armstrong spent many years as a test pilot at the facility, including as an X-15 pilot. The center was originally named for Hugh Dryden, an aerodynamicist who had been NACA director and shepherded its transformation into NASA.
  • Google agreed to acquire Skybox on Jun 10 for $500 million, giving it the ability to keep Google Maps up-to-date and help with Internet access and disaster relief, areas in which it has keen interest.
  • A Russian Dnepr rocket launched 37 satellites from 17 countries on Jun 19. Most were CubeSats, including 11 from Planet Labs.
  • NASA tested a Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) on Jun 28. The test helped evaluate an atmospheric entry to Mars for payloads larger than the 2,000-pound Curiosity.

2014 Q3

  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) launched Jul 2 on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB to study atmospheric carbon-dioxide. It replaces the original OCO which was lost when the payload fairing failed to separate on a Taurus-XL vehicle in February 2009.
  • Frederick I. Ordway III, a rocketry pioneer, author, and adviser on the movie 2001, passed away on Jul 7 in Huntsville at age 87.
  • Angara, the first launch vehicle developed entirely in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, made its first launch, a suborbital test flight, on Jul 9.
  • A second Orbital Sciences Cygnus, headed to ISS on Jul 13. Named Janice for the late Shuttle astronaut and Orbital employee Janice Voss, it arrived at the ISS on Jul 16, carrying food, supplies, and experiments.
  • SpaceX launched a cluster of six Orbcomm satellites on Jul 14.
  • The DARPA Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program is intended to fly suborbital space flights to Mach 10 many times a day at less than $5 million per flight. On July 15, DARPA announce Phase 1 contracts to: Boeing with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic.
  • The final ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle ATV-5, named Georges Lemaître after Belgian astronomer, was launched on Jul 29, and docked with the ISS on Aug 12. It was the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane rocket.
  • AsiaSat 8 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Aug 5 to a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO. This was followed almost a month later by AsiaSat 6.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft reached its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, on Aug 6, and conducted a series of small engine burns so that it was traveling with the comet rather than chasing it. Shortly before arrival, it found that the comet may be two objects joined together. Since then, it has snapped images of gas jets and dust arising from the comet, and deployed the Philae lander. Rosetta was launched 10 years earlier, on Mar 2, 2004.
  • The Stardust spacecraft may have collected specks of dust from interstellar space, NASA acknowledged in August. Launched in February 1999, a sample return capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 16, 2006. The spacecraft itself continued to an encounter with Comet Tempel 1 in 2011.
  • Chasqui I, a Peruvian nanosatellite, was launched from the ISS by two Russian cosmonauts on their spacewalk on Aug 18. The 1U CubeSat is designed for Earth observation.
  • The Space Falcon 9R reusable test rocket detonated itself when its control systems failed to keep it with its test area on Aug 22. It had previously made several controlled lift-offs and landings at the SpaceX site in McGregor, TX.
  • Flock 1b, composed of 28 Planet Labs Dove imaging nanosatellites, were deployed from the ISS, starting in August, joining the 20 of Flock 1a, which were deployed earlier in the year. As opposed to other imaging satellites, the Flocks aim at providing daily update of the entire Earth, but at a lower resolution that more expensive satellites.
  • Two ESA Galileo global navigation satellites were placed into incorrect orbits, following launch by an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from French Guinea on Aug 22. One was later nudged back to a useful position by its thrusters over a period of days.
  • A 3D printed rocket injector was tested in at 20,000 lbf thrust engine at NASA Marshall on Aug 22. Instead of assembling 115 parts, the printed injector required only two.
  • While outside the ISS cleaning its windows in August, cosmonauts apparently discovered sea plankton on its surface, in spite of extreme temperature swings and harsh radiation. The current working theory is that the plankton floated up on air currents.
  • Several Planet Labs Dove CubeSats unexpectedly launched themselves from the ISS on Sep 5 while the crew was not looking. This was the second such incident. NanoRacks the provider of the CubeSat deployer believes it has identified the source of the problem.
  • AsiaSat 6 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Sep 7 into a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO.
  • Mars rover Curiosity finally reached the base of Mount Sharp on Sep 11.
  • The SpaceX CRS-4 mission began with launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. Among the payloads were crew supplies; ISS-RapidScat, a microwave scatterometer to support weather forecasting; SPINSAT, a technology demonstrator for electrically ignited solid propellant thrusters; a 3D printer; and 20 mice, dubbed the “Mousetronauts”, for studying the long-term effects of microgravity. The Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS on Sep 23.
  • The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 21 to study the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. The data from MAVEN will help answer what happened to gasses such as CO2 N2, and H2O as they escaped to space.
  • The ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 24. While largely a technology demonstrator, MOM carries instruments to detect methane, and measure the relative abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. Total cost to the time of launch was about US$73 million.

2014 Q4

  • Communication was lost with the STEREO-B spacecraft on Oct 1, after a planned reset as it drifted to the far side of the Sun. It is one of a pair of probes in the Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory mission.  STEREO-A, proceeds around the Sun slighter faster than the Earth; STEREO-B proceeds a bit more slowly. Launched in October 2006, the two spacecraft, plus Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) provide different perspectives of the Sun. Attempts are still being made to reconnect with STEREO-B.
  • Scientists reported in October that Cassini received in electric shock from Saturn’s moon Hyperion on Sep 26, 2005. A large potential difference between the moon and the spacecraft, coupled with Saturn’s magnetic field and a solar wind led to a 200-volt electric shock over 2,000 km.
  • The X37-B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3), a robotic winged spacecraft, landed at Vandenberg AFB on Oct 18, after being in space for 674 days. Launch was from Cape Canaveral in December 2012.
  • Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) swept past Mars on Oct 19, with a relative speed of about 56 km/sec, and enveloped the planet in its tail. Trajectories of orbiters around Mars were adjusted so that the planet would shield them from direct exposure, but they would later be able to take measurements. The comet nucleus was estimated between 400 and 700 meters in diameter.
  • The largest sunspot of the current solar cycle (which started in 2008) occurred in October, and measured almost 125,000 km across.
  • Along with Chang’e 4, a probe referred to as Chang’e 5-T1 was launched by a Chinese Long March 3C rocket on a lunar flyby mission on Oct 23; it included a return capsule to test atmospheric skip reentry technology. It also carried privately built German and Spanish experiments and instruments.
  • An Antares rocket destined for the ISS suddenly lost thrust on Oct 28, a few seconds after lift-off. This led a range safety officer to detonate the self-destruct mechanism on the rocket. The AJ-26 engines (Russian-built, Aerojet-refurbished) are at the center of investigations.
  • SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tourism vehicle, broke up in flight on Oct 31. The cause seems linked to premature activation of the vehicle’s unique feathering system, and perhaps crew error; but the NTSB investigation is not yet complete. The break-up seems unrelated to the new nylon/nitrous oxide engine.
  • A 3D printer built by Silicon Valley start-up Made in Space was finally installed on Nov. 17, and then started preliminary tests, including making a sample replacement part for itself. The printer was flown to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sep 21.
  • The ESA Philae lander separated from Rosetta, and landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov 12, but unfortunately settled in shadow. It found that the surface of the comet was covered in dust, and detected organics in the comet’s atmosphere.
  • The Beam Me to Mars project sent 90,000 messages to Mars on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4. Sponsored by space-funding company Uwingu, copies of the messages were also delivered to Congress, to NASA, and to UN.
  • Spikes of methane on Mars were observed by Curiosity over the past year, and reported by JPL in December. So far, it is unclear if they are biologic, geologic, or of other origin.
  • Orion, NASA’s multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) flew its unmanned Experimental Flight Test-1 on Dec 5, orbiting the Earth once before it was pushed to 3,600 miles altitude so that it could re-enter at nearly 2200 degrees C.
  • Venus Express, after 8 years of studying the Venusian atmosphere, finally exhausted its propellant in late November. The ESA probe began a slow fall into the atmosphere.
  • CARE, the Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made a suborbital test flight on Dec 18. It was launched by a new ISRO GSLV Mk.III, also making its first test flight.

Space Science Undercurrents

In addition to the events above…

  • Several solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) occurred during the year, and included some X-class flares. A few glanced off the Earth’s magnetic field, creating spectacular auroras. From space, these phenomena were studied by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO; and the pair of Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatories, STEREO-A and STEREO-B.
  • Several asteroids of varying size came within one Lunar Distance (1 LD) of the Earth. Because they are coming toward the Earth, they often are not noticed against the background of the sky until they are only a few days away.