Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Stuff About Space That I Missed In 2014

2014 was a busy year for space exploration. Whilst I've covered a few of the notable stories and discoveries of the year, there have been many more that I've missed for one reason or another. To round off the year then, here is a brief look at four interesting space stories that I missed...

Three images showing the distant 2012 VP113 moving against a background of stars. Image Credit: Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science
Whilst I was busy writing about the discovery of rings around the asteroid Chariklo, another discovery in the solar system was vying for attention. The image above shows three observations of the same patch of sky, each taken two hours after the last. Moving against the background of stars is a tiny, yet remarkable dot. 2012 VP113 is no more than a thousand kilometers across, but is currently over 80 Astronomical Units (AU, the distance between the Earth and the Sun) away from the Earth.

It won't get much closer, and will swing out to 240 AU from the Sun at the furthest point in its orbit. That puts it way beyond the orbit of Neptune, the furthest planet from the Sun. Only one other object, Sedna, is in a similar orbit to 2012 VP113. In fact their obits are suspiciously similar, leading the discoverers to suggest that their passage around the Sun could be being shaped by a unseen planet in the far reaches of the Solar System. Or it could be coincidence.  
Artists impression of WISE J085510.83-071442.5, the coldest known "star". Image Credit: Robert Hurt/JPL, Janella Williams/Penn State University
In April astronomers at Pennsylvania State University announced the discovery of a very strange object. WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is a brown dwarf, one of a mysterious, ill-defined class of object that bridge the gap between stars and planets. Using NASA's WISE and Spitzer space telescopes, the discoverers had found that this brown dwarf was not only one of the closest objects to the Sun outside of our Solar system, at just 7.2 light years, but was also the coldest brown dwarf known.

The temperature on WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is between -13 and -18 degrees Celsius, as cold as Earth's poles. The low temperature shows that the object has a mass of around 3 to 10 times that of Jupiter, which is actually a little small for a brown dwarf. In fact it doesn't really fit into any of our current categories of astronomical objects- making it even more interesting.

Lift off of the Soyuz rocket, beginning the ill-fated voyage of the Russian space sex geckos. Image Credit: Roscosmos
"Russian Sex Geckos Lost In Space", or variants thereof, must be in the running for best headline of all time. Last August the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, launched the latest in a series of Foton laboratories, uncrewed spacecraft based on the old Vostock capsules. On board this particular launch were experiments studying the effects of spaceflight on various plants and animals. They included five geckos, sent into space to so see how their behaviour and sexual activity responded to weightlessness.

Disaster struck a few days after launch, as ground controllers lost contact with the tiny spacecraft. Stranded in the wrong orbit, the geckos were at risk of a fiery death in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Contact was restored a few day later, and the mission cut short before anything else went wrong. Sadly, when the capsule was recovered at the beginning of September, all of the geckos were dead. The Foton's heating systems had malfunctioned, freezing the unfortunate space lizards. Hopefully they died having a good time...

Artist's impression of the Kepler spacecraft, along with the different patches of sky that will be the targets of the K2 mission. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle
Closing out the year was the news that the resurrected Kepler spacecraft has spotted an exoplanet, the first confirmed discovery of its new mission. Launched in 2009, Kepler spent the first years of its life staring at a single patch of sky, looking for tiny dips in the light caused by planets passing in front of their stars.

Although highly successful, with over one thousand planet candidates spotted, this technique relied on the spacecraft being able to precisely control the direction in which it was pointing. Kepler achieved this using four gyroscopes, or reaction wheels. Unfortunately by the middle of 2013 two of the wheels had failed, leaving Kepler at the mercy of the buffeting solar wind.

With a continuation of its original mission impossible, engineers at NASA came up with an ingenious solution to allow the stricken spacecraft to carry on hunting for planets.  The pressure from the solar wind, that would otherwise push it of course, can actually be used to stabilize the spacecraft in certain directions. This new mission, dubbed K2, will see Kepler stare at several patches of sky, remaining at each one for around 80 days.

The first confirmation of a new planet found with this technique was announced on 17th December.  HIP 116454 b has a diameter around two and half times the size of the Earth, with just under 12 times Earth's mass. This probably means that it is a small gas giant, known as a mini-Neptune. Hopefully this will be the first of many planetary discoveries from Kepler's new mission,  

My favourite space image of the year: The Philae lander heads off into the dark towards Comet 67P. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

And that's all I have time to write about! There has been plenty more space stores this year, from the much-hyped but ultimately inconclusive BICEP2 results, interesting findings on Mars by NASA's Curiosity rover and a host of ups and downs for commercial spaceflight. More stuff about space will certainly come in 2015.

New blogs will be posted on Twitter. Happy New Year!

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