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Highlights From the Year in Space and Astronomy Developments

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Jan. 7: It seemed like an ominous start to the year when a SpaceX rocket made it off the launchpad, but its mysterious government payload appeared to have gone missing. Nearly 12 months and a lot of finger-pointing later, Zuma’s fate is not known.

Jan. 23: First announced in 2007, the Google-sponsored prize aimed at encouraging landings on the moon by privately-built robotic spacecraft with a $20 million jackpot for the winner. With a March 31 deadline looming, the prize announced none of its finalists would launch in time.

Jan. 31: A triple lunar coincidence before your morning coffee was brewed. The pictures were nice, too.

Feb. 6: Three columns of flame carried the ambitions of SpaceX into the blue. The Heavy also sent a cherry-red Tesla sports car into a long orbit around the sun in an astounding marketing stunt. The Falcon Heavy may fly again in 2019 with a real commercial customer.

April 1: China lost control of its first space station a couple of years ago, and the question of when and where it would land was a source of uncertainty for months. In the end, it touched down in an area of the Pacific Ocean with no one but the fish to witness the splash.

April 25: Using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission launched in 2013, the three-dimensional map of the Milky Way is the most detailed survey ever produced of our home galaxy.

May 14: The ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter with a global ocean flowing underneath its surface has long been an enticing target in the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists made their discovery by looking back at data collected by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during a 1997 flyby. Take Europa for a spin and see where the plume was detected below:

May 30: Dust storms are seasonal on Mars, but this one was giant and long-lasting. One result was that NASA’s Opportunity rover ran out of battery power and has been quiet ever since. The agency is still hoping to re-establish contact.

June 7: Data from NASA’s Curiosity rover let scientists confidently identify organic molecules on the red planet used and produced by living organisms (although it is possible for such substances to be produced in chemical reactions that are not biological).

June 18: President Trump said he would direct the Pentagon to establish a sixth branch of the armed forces dedicated to protecting American interests in outer space. While the proposal initially gained some political support, its future is uncertain as Democrats take a majority in the House of Representatives next year.

July 12: Astronomers announced that a neutrino first detected in Antarctica had been linked to a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, some 4 billion light-years from Earth. The finding was expected to help future detections of high-energy particles form space.

An artist’s rendering of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express discovering a subterranean reservoir near the planet’s southern ice cap.CreditESA/INAF, via Associated Press

July 25: A European orbiter detected a 12-mile-wide underground liquid pool, similar to lakes found beneath Greenland and Antarctica’s ice. “There are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there, or can be maintained there if life once existed on Mars,” said the Italian scientist who led the research.

July 27: A red blur lit up night skies on our blue marble for part of the summer as Earth played a game of monkey in the middle with Mars and the sun. Later in the month, the Martian orbit brought it within about 35.8 million miles of Earth, its closest approach since 2003.

Aug. 3: The new American rides to the International Space Station have been built by two private companies: SpaceX and Boeing. After they finish testing the capsules next year, these nine women and men could be the first astronauts to fly aboard the Crew Dragon and Starliner.

Aug 12: On a mission to “touch the sun,” this spacecraft will study our star’s outer atmosphere as well as the solar wind. As it orbited the sun in October, it recorded the fastest ever heliocentric speed by something humans launched.

Aug. 16: After studying Pluto in 2015, New Horizons continued farther into the solar system’s Kuiper belt, bound for a new destination. Ahead of schedule, it recorded its first image of 2014 MU69, the remote world it will fly by on Jan. 1.

Aug. 29: Astronauts slept through a dip in air pressure on their orbital home, and patched the puncture when they awoke. When Russian space authorities later concluded the hole had been deliberately drilled, the country’s news media stoked rumors of deliberate sabotage by American astronauts. The reports roiled space relations between the United States and Russia.

Sept. 21: Launched in 2014, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft arrived at the near-earth asteroid Ryugu during the summer and began surveying the rock. It landed a number of robotic probes on Ryugu’s surface, including two small hopping rovers that sent fascinating pictures back to Earth.

Oct. 19: The mission’s twin orbiters are on a complex seven-year journey to orbit the solar system’s innermost planet. They will study how its oddball makeup came to be.

Oct. 30: After nine-and-a-half years in orbit, 530,506 stars observed and 2,662 exoplanets discovered, the little spacecraft will be left to drift forever around the sun. Its mission has been handed to the TESS spacecraft, which launched in April.

Oct. 31: An international collaboration of scientists based in Germany and Chile released the strongest evidence yet that the dark entity at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is a supermassive black hole.

Nov. 1: Launched in 2007, the spacecraft studied Vesta and Ceres, the largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Though out of power, Dawn will continue to orbit Ceres for at least 20 years, possibly decades longer.

Nov. 11: From a launchpad in New Zealand, the start-up carried small satellites to space. It was a harbinger of a change to the space launch business, which might become dominated by an assortment of small rocket providers such as Rocket Lab.

Dec. 3: The spacecraft launched in 2016 with the mission of studying a near-earth asteroid that has a slim chance of colliding with Earth in the 22nd century. It will survey the object and try to collect samples to send back home in 2023.

Dec. 7: The next lunar visitor from Earth — in early 2019 — will be this Chinese spacecraft and its rover. If it succeeds, it will be the first soft landing on the moon’s far side. Spin the moon below and see the approximate landing site:

Dec. 13: Whether you consider 51.4 miles up to be space or not — the Federal Aviation Administration does but most scientists do not — the views recorded by Richard Branson’s tourist space plane were something to see.

Dec. 16: For those lucky enough to see it, the so-called Christmas comet glowed green in night skies, at a distance of only 7.1 million miles from our planet. You might still be able to see it.

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