All the Year’s Kickbutt Science From Space
I think I can say it: This was a badass year for space. When I learned about the solar system in elementary school, I thought of the planets as solid, immutable objects. They were far away, relatively unknowable, but I was comfortable—happy, even—with what I did know about them. The one with the rings, the one with the spot, the really tiny cold one. That was enough.
This year’s planetary research, though, has reminded me that exploration of the solar system (and beyond) is just beginning. When the New Horizons probe finally reached Pluto in July, after nearly a decade of travel through space, scientists essentially discovered a new world. And the images of its remarkably diverse icy surface, trickling in at just one to four kilobits a second, woke a new generation up to the possibilities of astronomical outreach.
It’s not just Pluto, either. New Horizons was this year’s biggest space story, but dozens of important space missions are ongoing. Cassini is finishing up its exploration of the Saturnian moon Enceladus this year, with more moons to come. The Rosetta spacecraft and its little lander Philae are still teaching scientists about the structure of comets, and satellites like MAVEN are revealing secrets about NASA’s favorite wish-to-be-habitable planet, Mars. It’s looking like the only thing more badass than 2015 might be 2016.