The 10 biggest developments in space exploration in the past year

29 Oct 2015

We’ve had a rather breathless 12 months of space travel, taking us from the moon to Pluto and beyond. Here we look at the 10 greatest developments of recent times.

Today, we brought news of a first for NASA, with two of its programmes witnessing a black hole shooting out a beam of X-ray light, bringing further knowledge to an area of space we know little about.

There have been huge leaps forward in terms of our understanding of dark matter, and enough amazing photographs to fill all the desktop backgrounds in the world.

But what are the top developments? Well, we’re here to help you figure that out. Notable exclusions from this list include the Mars Rover selfie, that annoying bright spot on Ceres and any other event I’ve forgotten about.

10 – Cumar: Ireland’s first-ever space mission

Ok this won’t make waves globally, perhaps, but this summer we finally got news of Ireland’s first-ever space programme, Cumar.

Hinted at by all-round space legend Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor way back at Inspirefest 2015, the name was finally revealed in August at an Astronomy Ireland event, fittingly, under the stars.

Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor at Inspirefest 2015

Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor speaking at Inspirefest 2015

Cumar’s mission, MaKenna-Lawlor said, would be to gain new understanding of space weather.

Negotiations are in progress to include in the spacecraft’s payload experiments from Chinese, Canadian, German, Japanese, Slovakian and British teams, each aiming to gain further insights into different aspects of space weather and its effect on society, the planet and technology.

In addition to scientific equipment, Cumar will be carrying a sculpture already commissioned from an Irish sculptor, who will use space-qualified materials for its construction.

9 – ISS: A year-long pursuit

Right now, whizzing above your head a few times a day, two astronauts are busy working away on the International Space Station (ISS).

This is nothing new, the ISS has housed dozens of astronauts over the years, who have handed the baton over to replacements every few months and come back down to Earth with stories to tell and pictures to show.

However, for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, things are markedly different. They are seven months into a year-long mission on the spacecraft, something never done before.

scott kelly mikhail kornienko iss

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Photo via NASA

The trials and tribulations their bodies are going through are estimated, but not fully known. The logic is, if humans ever want to get to Mars, we’re going to have to spend a long time in space. So why not learn what effects that can have on the human body?

While in space, the duo are expected to develop blurry vision, lose their balance, see a bone density reduction never experienced before, enjoy a melting away of muscle mass and develop an undercooked heart, which has to work far less in space to pump blood around the body.

At the halfway point of their mission, NASA revealed the messy details of the duo’s stay in space.

Year in Space - NASA

Amongst other things, the duo will each see almost 11,000 sunrises and sunsets, millions of stars and some truly incredible views, and drop 180 pounds worth of poop back down to Earth.

They will do more than 700 hours of exercise, which you clever clogs will realise is a couple of hours a day, and will run 648 miles on a treadmill.

For Kelly, too, he’ll need to wash his head. His bald head. Watch how you wash a bald head in space, people.

8 – Hubble Telescope is now 25 years of age

NASA’s Hubble Telescope was sent up to space back in 1990 to start taking photographs, giving us a glimpse into worlds we’d barely heard of, or never knew existed.

In 25 years, it has delighted us with pictures of nebulas, stars, clusters, eclipses and no end of astrological phenomena.

Hubble Telescope

Floating just above Earth, it’s consistently upgraded and maintained camera lenses offer us greater and greater shots of the universe around us.

And just like anyone else’s landmark birthday, we celebrated it by looking back at photos and accomplishments of old.

hubble_survey_black_holes_05282015 top twitter accounts for space – Galactic-Centre-HubbleHubbleHubbleHubble images via NASA and The Hubble Heritage 

7 – MESSENGER’s farewell pictures

Back in April, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft spiralled towards a destructive, crushing death amid its last tour of Mercury. Responsible for pretty much all of our real knowledge of the planet nearest the sun, MESSENGER had been circling Mercury for years taking photos of its surface.

However, with fuel running low, the doomed spacecraft prepared itself for its final trip down to death, sending us majestic pictures along the way.

Standing for ‘Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging’ spacecraft, MESSENGER sent us this tie-dye of Mercury’s surface, hours before its demise.


Mercury image, via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

6 – Planets beyond Pluto?

Way back in January, scientists found two planets, potentially as big as Earth, lurking beyond Pluto in our solar system, in a discovery that “may be truly revolutionary for astronomy”.

The discovery involved measurements of rocks located well beyond Neptune. A belt of space rocks, known as ‘extreme trans-Neptunian objects’ (ETNO), show unexpected symmetry, according to scientists who have been scouring the solar system looking for everything and anything.


Two planets image via Shutterstock

Some of these ETNOs appear to be orbiting in a defined path reminiscent of our moon.

By analysing the effects of what’s called the Kozai mechanism – which deals with large objects having smaller ones, much further away, orbiting around its gravitational pull – the researchers have thus theorised that just beyond what they can see could well be some more planets.

5 – Water on Enceladus

Okay, we’re getting into some seriously impressive discoveries now. Not taking anything away from Cumar, or Hubble’s shindig, but back in March, Enceladus – Saturn’s sixth-largest moon – was found to have a warm ocean beneath its icy surface.

For years, Jupiter’s icy moon Europa has intrigued many as to whether life could exist beneath its surface, but now with this discovery of hydrothermal activity on Enceladus, NASA said the implications of this find offer ‘unprecedented scientific possibilities’.

Hydrothermal activity is a common occurrence in our own oceans, where seawater infiltrates and reacts with the planet’s rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution.


An artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity on and under the seafloor of Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, based on recently published results from NASA’s Cassini mission. Image via NASA/JPL

4 – Water on Mars

Step back Jupiter’s moon, try Mars’ Mars. After much speculation, NASA finally confirmed last month that the Martian surface of Mars does indeed have liquid water running on it, which potentially brings new hope for the discovery of life on the red planet.

It seems rather timely given the complementary release of The Martian film (read our review here), with interest in Mars at a level not seen in decades.


The dark streaks observed on Hale’s crater show signs of water. Image via NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ University of Arizona

The liquid water was discovered to be running down the ridges of canyons and crater walls during the planet’s summer months, with it having left visible streaks down their slopes.

However, the actual origin of the water remains a mystery, with some suggestions being that it is originating from vast underground salty aquifers, Martian ice or even condensation from the planet’s thin atmosphere.

3 – Earth 2.0

Earth 2.0An artist’s rendition of Kepler-452b. Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

What a summer. In July, NASA discovered a new planet with strikingly similar features to our own. It was dubbed, rather unimaginatively, Earth 2.0, and its discovery sent everyone’s imaginations wild.

Kepler-452b, as the planet has been labelled by the agency, is in a solar system very similar to our own and is the right distance from its star to potentially be habitable. The planet is 6bn years old, 60pc larger than Earth and receives 10pc more energy from its star, which is 1.5bn years older and 20pc brighter than our sun, though has the same temperature.

“Today we’re announcing the discovery of an exoplanet that as far as we can tell is a pretty close cousin of Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “It’s the closest so far.”

Earth 2.0

This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside our solar system. Photo via NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt

Its 385-day orbit is only 5pc longer that Earth’s, while its mass and composition have yet to be determined, previous NASA research suggests that worlds this size have a good chance of being rocky.

Don’t pack your bags just yet, though. An Interstellar-like jaunt across the galaxy isn’t going to happen anytime soon. It’s 1,400 light years away. To put that into perspective, Pluto is only five light hours away.

“You and I probably won’t be travelling to these planets, but our children’s children’s children could be,” NASA’s Jeff Coughlin said. “This gives us something to aim for.”

2 – Pluto. Pluto, Pluto, Pluto.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft left Earth nine years ago. In that time we’ve seen smartphones revolutionise communications, renewable energy developments point to a manageable future without fossil fuels and economic collapses wreck economies all over the world.

Twitter has emerged, Instagram too. One Direction is now a thing, and a famous lion martyr has changed from Mufasa to Cecil.

Throughout all of this, New Horizons kept plugging away. Pluto was downgraded from ‘planet’ to ‘not planet’, New Horizons kept plugging away.

With a CPU smaller than you ever could imagine, it kept plugging away. Then, during the summer (have we said ‘what a summer?’) it finally made it.

Pluto New Horizons

Despite a couple of scares in the hours leading up to its homing in on Pluto, it sent back some incredibly well-defined images of the planet (I mean ‘planet’ in the terms of My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets, people).

Since then it has taken in Pluto’s moons, too, but now it’s on its way into the beyond.

We enjoyed this, perhaps more than the lovestruck former planet.

Pluto passing

1 – Philae, Rosetta and an amazing comet landing

Last November, almost 12 months ago, the Rosetta spacecraft released its helper Philae, which floated down onto a comet and landed.

Okay, it wasn’t as smooth as that, and its crash landing was quite the event, but it got there, it reported back, and humankind achieved one of its finest accomplishments. Step back, modern sewerage systems, go away penicillin, we just won the best game of tag ever.

Philae Rosetta ESA

A two-image mosaic from CIVA showing one of Philae’s three feet (foreground) on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image via ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Chasing down a comet, photographing it, measuring it, then landing a worker on it. Bravo. Philae landed in the shade and hadn’t a whole lot of juice after its cliff-smashing landing, but it actually woke up again during the summer, chatting with Rosetta and keeping us informed.

Rosetta selfie

Rosettas selfie. Image via ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Since the landing, rafts of papers have been filed, with the life-building properties on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko a surprise to many. But then again, when we have Rosetta and Philae working at it, what can’t we do?

And by the way, this list is NASA heavy, but Philae was an ESA achievement. Well done guys!

Main solar system image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic