The birth of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. Since its inception, a great deal of U.S. Space exploration has been lead by the agency, including the Apollo moon-landing missions and the space shuttle missions, as well as the United States’ first space station, the Skylab. At the present time, some of the exploration NASA supports are based in the International Space Station, (which is the largest artificial body in orbit today, and can actually quite often enough be seen from earth), along with the Launch Services Program (LPS), which is responsible for launch operations as well as countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. From the agency’s first unmanned launch in 1958 (the Explorer satellite project) to a more recent one, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), over 1,000 unmanned missions have been designed to explore the Earth and solar system by NASA.
The unmanned missions alone over the course of the last 5 decades are a remarkable achievement for everyone involved. Well actually, for all of mankind. The very fact that we have gone from placing artificial satellites into orbit to landing a land rover (Curiosity), with the objective to investigate habitability on Mars is an astounding accomplishment. Through studying Mars’ geology and climate Nasa has collected data for future manned missions to Mars which will advance their progress even further.
We are truly blessed to be living in a time where we have the opportunity of witnessing an incredible amount of scientific discoveries, insights and milestones that continue to advance the fields of astronomy. In the past two years more in-depth discoveries have been found on extra-solar planets to extraterrestrial neutrinos, and in the past 12 months alone NASA scientists have made historical progression in the study of Mars. They’ve found hints of dark matter and evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory, and ESA partnered with NASA to successfully land Rosetta mission’s Philae probe on a comet 316 million miles away from Earth. I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to see what other scientific discoveries NASA will find and share with the world in 2015.
Here is a list of some of NASA’s most remarkable discoveries you may or may not know about:
13. Earth-Like Worlds in Two-Star Systems
A two-star system usually refers to stars, but can also be planets, galaxies, asteroids and brown dwarfs, ones that are so close to each other their gravitational interaction makes them orbit around a common mass. Recently, scientists have discovered evidence that livable, Earth-like worlds can exist in two-star solar systems. Half of the universe’s planets are in fact in binary systems, so this evidence makes us believe that the chances of life on other planets may just have become more viable.
The planet named OGLE-2013-BLG-034LBb is about 3,000 light-years away from Earth, and because it circulates a red dwarf it is most likely too cold to support life. It’s not the first planet discovered to exist in a two-star system, but the discovery of OGLE-2013-BLG-034LBb is very significant because it shows that rocky planets can in fact form far from their host stars, which suggests that habitable planets could very well be more common than scientists have previously thought.
12. The Hand of God
The X-ray image was recorded by NASA’s Chandra observatory, which circles 360 miles above Earth and is designed to take high-energy images all over the universe. For example, images like fragments of exploded stars. Named the Hand of God, and rightfully so, to the imaginative eye, it appears to have stretched out fingers, formed by a spinning neutron star more commonly known as a pulsar, which appears to be buried deep inside the fist and releases energy every time it is in rotation. Even though the actual pulsar is only 12 miles in diameter, the cloud stretches throughout 150 light years and is approximately 17,000 light years away.
11. Titan: Evidence that Alien Life Exists on Saturn’s Moon
NASA researchers believe they have discovered important clues that could very well lead us to believe that alien life exists on Saturn. Data was collected from NASA’s Cassini Probe which analyzed the composite chemistry on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, the only moon around the planet believed to have a dense atmosphere. Astronomers alleged that the moon is too cold to support liquid water even on its surface, but they have discovered that life forms have actually been breathing in Saturn’s atmosphere and feeding on its surface fuel. Chris MacKay, an astrobiologist for NASA who was in charge of the research for Titan, said:
“We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth. If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.”
10. Dark Matter Signal Detected?
Dark matter is a mysterious substance that has baffled astronomers for decades now. There is no way that it can be precisely observed, for the very reason that it doesn’t discharge or absorb light. Scientists have only been able to assume its existence because it seems to use gravitational effects in a normal fashion. Researchers have estimated that dark matter makes up 80 percent of the matter in our entire universe. They’ve used data from ESA’s XMM-Newton spacecraft and found a curious X-ray signal coming from both the Perseus galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy. The signal they found doesn’t compare to any known matter. This is one reasonable clue as to dark matter’s existence. Scientists still don’t know what dark matter is actually made of, but there are numerous possibilities out there in different particles. The new results found by XMM-Newton indicate that dark matter is made of a particle called an axion, making it possible that years from now, 2014 will possibly be remembered as the year dark matter was first detected.
9. Newfound Exoplanets
An exoplanet is a planet that doesn’t orbit the sun, but actually orbits a brown dwarf or a different star. They are extremely rare to come across but the Kepler spacecraft spotted 715 new alien planets, which almost doubles the known population. Four of them are habitable-zone worlds less than 2.5 times the size of earth and 90 percent of the planets are smaller than Neptune. Researchers confirmed that this massive amount of planets found by Kepler came from a technique called “ validation by multiplicity.” The technique relies on statistics rather than other observations by different telescopes.
8. The First Exomoon
An exomoon is a natural satellite that orbits an exoplanet, and astronomers may have detected this kind of moon on an alien planet for the first time ever. However, there really is no way of knowing for sure whether they did or not, so the search for the first confirmed exomoon continues. The researchers used a technique called gravitational microlensing, which shows how a center object’s gravity warps the light from a far star when it passes in front of the star from Earth’s viewpoint. These researchers saw one lensing event caused by a center object that could be one of either two things: a rogue planet that has a rocky exomoon, or a small star that hosts a planet about 18 times larger than Earth.
7. First Glance at a Cosmic Web
Last year, scientists caught one of the first looks into the largest image ever seen in our universe; a thread of the cosmic web which stretched 2 million light-years across the universe. On massive scales, our universe typically resembles a spider web, with long strands of gas stretched between galaxies, which connect them. This cosmic web assumption goes well in theory, but scientists had never actually seen the intergalactic strands until last year. Scientists used the Keck telescope in Hawaii and studied the light from a very bright object, a quasar, which actually happened to be pointed at such an angle that it eventually lit up the gas strands between galaxy nodes.
6. A Colossal Solar System of Seven Planets Orbiting a Sun-Like Star
A solar system of seven planets orbiting a sun-like star has been discovered 127 light years from Earth. This planetary system is believed to be the largest ever detected farther than the sun. Astronomers have confirmed the presence of five planets and have alluring evidence of two more. The distance of the planets from their parent star follow a very regular pattern, similar to the pattern we see in our own solar system. Dr Christophe Lovis, who was the lead scientist in this discovery said: ”We have found what is most likely the system with the most planets yet discovered.” This remarkable discovery also highlights the fact that we are now entering a new era in exoplanet research: the study of complex planetary systems and not just of individual planets.
5. Planets Around Every Star?
2014 was definitely the year for NASA discoveries. A study conducted suggests that every red dwarf in the Milky Way galaxy plays host to at least one planet. Red dwarfs inhabit about 70 percent of the galaxy’s 100 billion or more stars and at least 25 percent of these small, dim stars in the sun’s proximity host habitable-zone worlds. The research team ended up with these conclusions after evaluating observations made by two instruments in Chile — the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES). The end results support previous findings made by researchers who analyzed Kepler data, that revealed the Milky Way is teeming with billions of planets.
4. Extraterrestrial Neutrinos Found in Antarctica
Physicists in Antarctica have found evidence of cosmic rays from outside the solar system. The energetic rays themselves are really difficult to notice, therefore, scientists have to rely on the discovery of neutrinos produced as the cosmic rays interact with their surroundings. (Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are produced by the decay of radioactive elements and are elementary particles that have no electric charge). Out of the billions of neutrinos that pass through a square centimeter of Earth each second, there are only a few that actually are able to interact with matter. However, using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an instrument that is buried in a cubic kilometer of ice under the South Pole, physicists were able to detect two neutrino occurrences that essentially began out of the solar system.
3. First Planet in Habitable Zone
NASA scientists have discovered Earth’s closest exoplanet in terms of size. The planet, has been named Kepler-78b, and is only 20 percent wider and 80 percent more massive than Earth, with a similar density. Kepler-78b orbits its sun once every 8.5 hours at a distance of about 900,000 miles and its surface temperature reaches more than 3,680 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though the Kepler spacecraft has found about 715 exoplanets, Astronomers aren’t completely satisfied because they want to know more about these alien bodies.
2. Landing on a Comet
On November 12th 2014, ESA landed a probe on a comet, an essential and historical event. Philae’s mother-ship Rosetta spacecraft traveled approximately 4 billion miles over 10 years to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae left Rosetta, traveled the remaining 317 miles to the comet and eventually hit the target landing area. It actually bounced twice before settling down for good, unfortunately the probe is solar powered, and the area where it landed is covered in a shadow, so it is in hibernation mode. However, before Philae shut down, it was able to conduct some research. Instruments on the lander found organic molecules, ones that contain carbon, an essential ingredient of life on Earth.
1. Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Life
For centuries now people have hypothesized about the possibilities of life on Mars because of the red planet’s parallelism and locality to Earth. In January of 2014, NASA announced the studies that were being conducted on Mars by the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. They would now be searching for evidence of ancient life on the planet, containing a biosphere based on chemotrophic and autotrophic microorganisms, as well as ancient water related to possible ancient lakes and rivers that may have very well been habitable.
The Curiosity team reported evidence of a freshwater Martian lake close to the red planet’s equator that quite possibly could have supported life for elongated periods of time. The lake most likely thrived approximately 3.7 billion years ago, which is far more recent than scientists in the past had thought habitable environments existed on Mars. Fairly recently, scientists have been using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (The high- resolution geological mapping system) to conclude if the dark seasonal streaks near the planet’s equator could actually indicate the presence today of flowing salt water on Mars during the planet’s warm months.
Human settlement on Mars is something of the near future, and is the next huge leap for mankind. The Mars One program will establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet with crews of four scheduled to depart every two years, starting in 2024. Mars is shaping up to be a far more habitable place than previously thought after countless discoveries have been made over the years, so it’s only fitting that Mars takes our number one spot on the list of NASA’s top discoveries.