With war, terrorism and climate change dominating the headlines of 2015, it’s easy for good news to get lost in the noise. However, 2015 also saw many more positive, albeit lesser known headlines, including those highlighting some of the most impressive scientific discoveries of recent times. In the world of astronomy and exploration, 2015 will hopefully be remembered as the year Pluto was explored by a robotic space probe for the first time and water was discovered on Mars.
Water Flows on Mars
It has long been known that there’s plenty of water on Mars. But only recently was direct evidence found of water actually flowing on the surface of the Red Planet, rather than being locked up in the form of ice at the poles or beneath the ground. In September, NASA confirmed that water flows, in the form of brine, down various craters and canyons during the summer on the barren world. The occurrence of flowing water vastly improves the chances of finding past or present life in the world once thought to be nothing more than an arid desert.
Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Pluto Is Geographically Active
Pluto, is the enigmatic dwarf planet that has long eluded astronomers, due to its great distance, since its discovery in 1930. However, in July, NASA’s New Horizons mission successfully performed a flyby, taking the first ever close-up images of the icy world. Assumed to be a dead due to frigidly cold world on the fringes of the solar system, scientists were stunned to find that Pluto is still geologically active. Most notably, a heart-shaped formation that is unusually flat was discovered meaning that it was recently resurfaced by a major geological event.
Photo: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.
Vegetables Grow in Space
In August, a team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station successfully harvested the first vegetables ever grown beyond Earth. As a key requirement for any future manned mission to Mars, the ability to grow vegetables in space promises to revolutionize the world of space exploration. Astronauts successfully harvested a romaine lettuce grown within the artificial microgravity environment, consuming half of it and sending the other half back to Earth for further analysis. No doubt the astronauts welcomed the break from the typically pureed preserves of cosmic cuisine!
Brightest Galaxy Discovered
Astronomers discovered the brightest galaxy in the known universe in May. Located a staggering 12.5 billion light-years away (which means we are seeing it as it was 12.5 billion years ago), its present situation is completely unknown. The brightness of this cosmic behemoth is likely a result of a supermassive black hole in its center, which formed when the universe was still young. With a brightness 300 trillion times the intensity of our Sun, you probably wouldn’t want to look directly at it if you happened to be in the vicinity. This discovery will likely enable astronomers to study the earliest stars found within our universe in the years ahead.
Image: David Sobral
Mystery Spots on Dwarf Planet Ceres
NASA’s Dawn space probe reached the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, in March. It soon discovered a great mystery upon its barren, airless rocky surface in the form of bright white spots in the 57-mile-wide Occator Crater. Many explanations have been put forward, including the possibility of ice, geysers, volcanoes, deposits of salt, and a few wilder theories such as alien presence. While Dawn has taken many high-resolution images of the gleaming crystalline surface of the white regions, a solid explanation has yet to be found.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA) / NASA
With beautiful images and a multitude of data being sent back to Earth from the furthest reaches of the solar system, there’s little doubt that 2016 and the years beyond will continue to produce exciting new discoveries. Among the most promising missions include NASA’s robotic Mars lander InSight, scheduled to land on the Red Planet in 2016. NASA will also be continuing development of the Orion crewed spacecraft, which may one day take humans to Mars, and the continued operation of the International Space Station until at least 2024.
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