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2014 Year of Space Technology Benchmarks, Setbacks

  • George Putic

Space technology this year reached some important goals, culminating with the spectacular landing of a space probe on a comet, millions of kilometers from Earth. But there were some setbacks, too.

The biggest achievements of 2014 happened in the last half of the year.

In August, after a decade-long flight, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft became the first man-made object to enter into orbit around a comet, more than 400 million kilometers away.

In November, Rosetta launched a probe, named Philae, that made the first soft landing on the comet.

Its rugged surface caused the probe to settle down in partial shade, but lander manager Stephan Ulamec counseled patience.

“Our original fear that the lander would overheat is not relevant anymore," he said. "We are in the shadow. So we can operate much longer in principle but we have to be patient and wait for a little bit more time until we have enough solar power to reactivate Philae.”

Orbiting Mars

In September, the U.S. scientific satellite MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) entered an orbit around Mars, with the mission of learning what happened to the Red Planet's atmosphere and water.

MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky says scientists now know that Mars once had a much denser atmosphere and that it has changed significantly over the last few billion years. What they still don’t know is how and why that happened.

“We are trying to understand what the cause of that climate change has been, and we are looking at the role that escape to space may have played in removing the atmosphere and changing the atmosphere,” Jakosky said.

A few days later, MAVEN was joined by India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan, making India the first nation to reach Mars' orbit successfully in the first attempt. Its mission was to develop technologies and experience for future explorations.

NASA's Orion capsule

In December, using its largest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, NASA conducted a nearly perfect first launch and retrieval of its new space capsule Orion, designed for manned deep space explorations.

Orion program manager Mark Geyer said it was hard to have a better day.

“It’s a difficult mission. It’s a tough environment to fly through," said Geyer. "It's tough objectives that we set up for this flight. But it appears that Orion and the Delta IV Heavy were nearly flawless. Great job by the team.”

In the future, the Orion capsule will fly on top of a more powerful rocket, the Space Launch System.

NASA plans to send it to circumnavigate the moon in 2018, while the first flight with astronauts is planned for 2021.

Setbacks for private space industry

The budding private space industry in the U.S. suffered two setbacks this year. In October, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s cargo rocket Antares, bound for the International Space Station, exploded soon after liftoff. Later that month, Virgin Galactic’s experimental space vehicle SpaceShip Two broke up in the middle of a test flight, killing one of the two pilots.

Both companies said the mishaps will not deter them from trying to develop reliable spacecraft for near orbit flights.