​The Year That Made Space Exploration Look Easy

Except for two tragedies that reminded us how difficult and risky it actually still is.

Dec 22 2014, 2:00pm


This year, we witnessed an impressively diverse range of space agencies and private companies push space exploration into brand new directions and unexplored territories. It was the year, after all, that we landed on a fucking comet. Space exploration has never seemed so within our grasp—or a comet lander's harpoons.

The European Space Agency (ESA) rather unusually stole the spotlight from NASA with its Rosetta mission, the comet-chasing probe that rivalled Kim Kardashian in breaking the internet. After waking from its 31-month slumber in January, the spacecraft successfully "rendezvoused" with Jupiter-family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August. The highlight of the mission so far came three months later, when Rosetta sent the Philae lander to actually touchdown on the comet's surface.

Philae descending to the comet. Image: ​ESA/Rosetta/MPS

Things didn't go off without a hitch; Philae lost its footing and hibernated when its  initial batteries gave out. But all's not over, and ESA fingers are crossed for a revival next year when Churyumov-Gerasimenko brings the lander's solar array closer to the Sun. Before it burns up later in 2015, we can count on a lot more data to come out of Rosetta's many scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, there were a few new additions to the gang of orbiters around Mars. NASA sent  atmosphere-monitoring spacecraft MAVEN up in September, and the Indian Space Research Organisation's Mars Orbiter Mission joined it in the first week at an impressively low cost. Other countries also voiced their intention to join this space party: In July, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to send an unmanned spaceship to Mars in 2021.

And the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are still up there on the Red Planet's surface, discovering more  evidence of water and rocks that are probably not jelly donut-shaped life forms.

If Obama has his way, we'll be joining the rovers in the next couple decades, and NASA made progress this year towards a human Martian mission. The space agency's chief technologist  told Motherboard we're already halfway there on a tech level, and recent tests give rise to that kind of optimism. Only this month, NASA tested its new Orion spacecraft—the one intended to take humans to Mars—for the first time, and everything went to plan.

The same can't be said for every 2014 space mission. In a year that otherwise made space exploration look easy, one week in October brought the dangerous reality of pushing innovation in this area back to Earth. On October 28, a resupply mission run by private US company Orbital Sciences exploded seconds after launch. The unmanned Antares rocket was intended to head for the International Space Station, but its destruction meant foreseeable resupply missions will likely rest with competitor SpaceX. In fact, the future looks pretty profitable for Elon Musk's venture, what with US-Russian relationships also cooling this year.

Only days after the Antares catastrophe came another big commercial space disaster: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which had hoped to carry tourists in the next year, was  destroyed in a devastating crash. Sadly, this was a manned test. Pilot Michael Alsbury lost his life in the incident, and co-pilot Peter Siebold suffered injuries. With the destruction of the ship—and a likely dent in potential passengers' confidence—the dream of space tourism faced a major setback.

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo. Image: ​Jeff Foust/Flickr

Before the crash, Virgin Galactic had set the (many times delayed) first commercial flights for 2015, but in the wake of the tragedy you can cross "go into orbit" off your list of New Year's resolutions.

Nevertheless, 2015 holds some treats in store for armchair space explorers. For starters, the Rosetta mission will continue right through to December, following Comet 67P as it gets closest to the Sun in August before continuing on its way. We'll also visit another previously unexplored space object: In July, NASA's  New Horizons spacecraft will get closest to Pluto, which was the only unexplored planet left in our Solar System when the mission launched.

We'll still be keeping our eyes on that promised manned mission to Mars, and a few other longer-term plans like a potential probe to  Jupiter's moon Europa.

But it'll be a while before we reach these new frontiers. After all, when it comes to travelling millions of miles, a year really isn't very long.