The Year's Top Ten Outer Space Stories

While recent news of space exploration may have turned dismal with the high-profile loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its payload on September 1, this brief setback comes against a backdrop of some of the most dramatic space-related inventions and discoveries of all time. A brief review of the top ten exciting developments of the last year should be enough to make the case that there has never been a better time to turn our eyes skyward.
Ten – V774104
The name isn’t much, but until its orbit is determined, the team of Mauna Kea astronomers who discovered the most distant object in the solar system will have to stick with V774104. The icy body is estimated to be 103 AU from the Sun, more than three times the distance of Neptune.
Nine – Vostochny Cosmodrome
After years of construction, Vostochny Cosmodrome, located in Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East, saw its first unmanned launch in April of 2016. “Really, like they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the Cosmodrome’s readiness for operation is the first launch,” said President Vladimir Putin, who watched from a mile away. “And you did it. We should be proud. It’s a serious and important contribution to the development of the Russian space industry.”
Eight – Long March 7
China’s space program took a great leap forward on 25 June, 2016 with the inaugural flight of the Long March 7, the newest product of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. Capable of lifting 13,500 kg into orbit, the Long March 7 is the most powerful rocket ever flown in China, and the tenth best in the world today.
Seven – OSIRIS REx
On 8 September, NASA launched the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS REx). Leaving Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V, the spacecraft is on a first-of-its-kind seven year mission to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu, collect samples, and return for a landing in the Utah desert.
Six – Scott Kelly
When NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly landed on the Kazakh steppe on 1 March after 340 days aboard the International Space Station alongside Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, he set a new record – the longest stay by an American in orbit. After completing the mission (his third), Kelly announced his retirement from the Astronaut service.
Five – Juno
After a five-year voyage, the NASA-JPL spacecraft Juno entered a polar orbit around Jupiter on 5 July. The second spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, Juno is equipped with instruments sensitive to radio, microwave, infrared, visible and ultraviolet light. During its twenty-month mission, Juno will study the planet’s gravity, composition, magnetic field, and auroras.
Four – Proxima Centauri b
On 24 August, a team of astronomers working at the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, the nearest exoplanet. Its host star, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is the closest star to Earth, and the planet orbits every 11 days. Because the planet receives about two-thirds as much light as Earth, it could support liquid water; however, X-rays and possible tidal locking put the planet’s habitability in question.
Three – New Shepard
Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, long in pursuit of commercial space tourism, made a breakthrough on 23 November 2015, with the vertical landing of the suborbital New Shepherd rocket. After reaching an altitude of 100.5 km, the booster separated from its space capsule and landed under rocket power while the capsule descended by parachute.
Two – Falcon 9 Landing
Blue Origin’s accomplishment was far outmatched the next month when SpaceX recovered the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket. Unlike New Shepard, the Falcon 9 placed a cargo, 11 Orbcomm satellites, into orbit before making a vertical landing on a ground pad. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk intends for reusable rocket technology to revolution spaceflight, reducing launch costs by an order for magnitude. Over the next few months, SpaceX followed up their accomplishment with five more successful landings.
One – Gravity Waves
In February of 2016, physicists working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) published the first detection of a gravitational wave. The signal they found last September exactly matched physicists’ predictions for the collision of a distant pair of black holes.
The discovery came 15 years after construction began on LIGO, and 100 years after Albert Einstein, in his General Theory of Relativity, predicted the existence of gravity waves. Like light, gravity waves travel through the vacuum of space at 300,000 km/sec, and with them, LIGO has opened up a new window to view the heavens.
Embry-Riddle professors Andri Gretarsson, Brennan Hughey, and Michele Zanolin had all worked on the project. Said Zanolin: “This is the beginning of a new era of physics and astronomy.”

Print Friendly