By any standards, 2015 was an exciting year for space exploration, from NASA New Horizons spacecraft and its fly-by of Pluto, to the European Space Agency’s ongoing close encounter with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
“It was a fantastic year that brought us even closer to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“Our space program welcomed advances from commercial partners who will soon launch astronauts from the United States to the International Space Station, and progress on new technologies and missions to take us into deep space, improve aviation and explore our universe and home planet.”
While New Horizons captured never-before-seen views of Pluto and its moons, the Dawn spacecraft made history in March with another dwarf planet, Ceres, when it became the first spacecraft to orbit such a celestial body.
In October, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made the closest-ever flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus capturing valuable scientific data from the plume of icy spray coming from the moon’s subsurface ocean.
The Kepler spacecraft meanwhile identified the first near-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone around a sun-like star 1,400 light-years away.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope came closer to operations with its mirrors installed in November ahead of launch in 2018.
The Hubble Space Telescope, meanwhile, celebrated 25 years of operation and NASA’s Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Our knowledge of Mars was increased thanks to the stunning work of the Mars rover Curiosity, while high above the surface the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission identified Mars might have lost its atmosphere.
The ESA meanwhile saw the year begin and end with two pioneering missions: IXV, the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, proving Europe’s ability to return autonomously from space, and LISA Pathfinder, which set out in December to test the technologies needed to detect gravitational waves.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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