Jupiter is set to give Mars and Saturn a run for their money when it comes to being the most talked-about planet in the coming years. The news that Jupiter’s moon Europa contains water vapor plumes helped solidify the Solar System’s biggest planet as a particularly important exploration target, especially when it comes to the search for life. A number of missions, including Juno, which is scheduled to arrive in 2016, have Jupiter in their sights, including the ESA’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moon Explorer) probe, which is due to launch in 2022. Now it seems that Russia will join the fun, presumably by linking up with the JUICE mission by sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.
Robots in space — two great tastes that taste great together. They might go to Mars ahead of the humans to set up facilities, 3-D printed robotic spiders might build spacecraft, and robots might make isolated astronauts less lonely. Yet another robotics advancement at NASA pairs humans and robots, allowing humans to control the actions of robotic counterparts using a good ol’ Microsoft Kinect and something called the Oculus Rift.
The Kinect sensor provides the position tracking, while the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows for rotational tracking and the first-person experience one gets when playing a game in virtual reality. When the user has the view he needs, he can perform tasks which control the real-time movements of robotic arm. NASA has been using a JACO robotic arm developed by Kinova, a Canadian company that specializes in rehabilitation and research. The arm has three fingers, six degrees of freedom, and is designed to represent a “new generation of lightweight portable robotic manipulators.”
Given my fascination with the universe, my love for Carl Sagan, and my hopes that the reboot of Cosmos will take viewers by storm, it’s only appropriate that my last post of the year would be about space — and more specifically, about a planetary scientist who arranged a pretty awesome photo op of Earth from the Cassini spacecraft.
Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and professor of astrophysics and planetary scientists, is following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps, especially when it comes to appreciating the significance of Earth as the “pale blue dot.” The phrase refers to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe on its way out of the Solar System, nearly four billion miles from Earth. At Sagan’s request, NASA had the probe turn around and take a photo of Earth, which Sagan then elegantly wrote about. While the photo provides some perspective on the enormity of the universe and the relative smallness of Earth, the original image wasn’t actually that good, and Porco has been wanting to update that image for a long time.
Writing a round-up of best science stories of the year is a tall order—it’s kind of like writing a piece about the best and brightest stars in the sky. There are countless stories to choose from, and so many that are inarguably awesome. That in itself says something—if my biggest dilemma as a science writer is sifting through the innovations to find the biggest nuggets of gold, then that’s a pretty great problem.
I’m going to cheat a little. I’m allowed, right? I’ve narrowed it down to categories, with a few stories in each.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of his mentor Carl Sagan’s much-lauded and much-loved documentary Cosmos will air next year on Fox. What I want for Christmas is for the show to be compelling and for people to watch it.
The trailer shows a slicked-up version of the original iteration of the show, which makes sense, given all the special effects and cinematic wizardry (not to mention developments in our knowledge of space) that have been developed over the past 20 years. It still features its host manning what looks to be some futuristic spacecraft — the only difference is that Tyson dons a pair of bad-ass sunglasses. Tyson’s no dummy. He knows that in these times, he has to appeal to audiences that have short attention spans and little interest in space. As he said at the end of his wonderful speech at the National Space Symposium, the rhetoric most space advocates use (All humans are explorers! It’s in our DNA!) has grown tired, and only appeals to people who are already bought into the importance of space exploration.
Forget diamonds — asteroids are the hottest rocks out there. And unlike most objects, celestial or otherwise, asteroids have a particularly compelling dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re mineable and they provide a wealth of resources that could benefit us on Earth, as well as catalyze space exploration. On the other hand, they present for some dodgy spacecraft flying conditions, obliterated the dinosaurs, and have wreaked havoc in Russia. Along with a slew of movies about asteroid apocalypses, these events have galvanized scientists and governments into action to detect (and hopefully prevent) threats posed by asteroids. Regardless of whether you think asteroids are cool or terrifying, or a bit of both, we have to be able to find them in order to do anything else with or about them. NASA has put out a call to help it find asteroids, but now the single best asteroid hunter, NEOWISE, is back in business.