The Sciences

Greatest Misses of Space Exploration in 2014

Out There iconOut ThereBy Corey S PowellDec 31, 2014 7:53 PM


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NASA's warp-drive spacecraft? Uh, I don't think so. (Credit: Mark Rademaker) They can't all be hits. Whenever you are trying to do something as ambitious as exploring the universe, some things are bound to fail. And whenever you are trying to do large, collaborative projects that involve large numbers of people and sizable sums of money, things go wrong. Stuff happens. People make mistakes, egos get in the way, and often it is just really hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction. When I looked back on the year and saw incredible high points of cosmic adventure (described in my previous post), but I also saw some notable low ones. I don't mean to minimize the serious problems of 2014 that played out in other areas of human experience--everything from ebola to Ukraine to ISIS to Eric Garner. Still, I look to space exploration as a celebration of the greatest, most positive things humans can achieve. When we miss the mark here, we lose an opportunity to enhance the noblest aspects of our species: our ability to work together, to value everyone with a good idea, to progress toward goals that are peaceful and shared. Exploring the universe may not put food on anyone's plate, but it encourages the kind of minds and efforts that lead to a better quality of life for everyone. OK, I'll end my "up with people" moment. On to the great misses of 2014. Again, if you think I left out something important, or picked the wrong targets, please comment below or let me know via Twitter: @coreyspowellMisses of 2014Orion begins a glorious voyage to nowhere. You may recall I picked NASA's new Orion space capsule as one of the hits of the year, and it is--from a technical point of view. Its first test flight was flawless. But right now, there is no funded human space exploration program to back up Orion. There is no destination for the giant rocket (NASA's depressingly named Space Launch System) beyond a promising but contentious plan to explore a relocated asteroid. The Obama administration has made vague promises that we will go to Mars someday, but the plan has no funding and this version of Orion won't get us there. I'm all for dreaming big, but right now the American human spaceflight program looks more like fantasy than dream. Bicep2 team retracts its great cosmology discovery. Like Orion, Bicep2 makes a double appearance as both hit and miss. In March the Bicep2 team announced convincing evidence that they had found gravitational ripples from the birth of the universe. By the end of the year the results looked a lot less convincing. As I noted earlier, the research is still extremely impressive and quite possibly correct; there will be more progress in this area within the next year or two. But I'm nicking the Bicep2 team for two reasons. First, they jumped too quickly into the public fray (essentially bypassing peer review) with results that still contained significant unknowns. Second is more of an institutional failing: for bureaucratic reasons, the Bicep2 researchers could not look at data from the European Planck satellite that could have settled the matter. Perhaps the experience will inspire more open data sharing in the future. Mars Curiosity makes slow progress. Yet another good news/bad news story. The Curiosity rover is a marvelous piece of machinery, and it is conducting impressive long-distance planetary geology on Mars. Nevertheless, there is a sense among many people in the planetary science community that Curiosity is mostly confirming and improving on things we already knew--announcing versions of "we found evidence of water on Mars" over and over. Some of those concerns came out into the open in the critical evaluation issued by a NASA review panel in September. Even the intriguing announcement that Curiosity has found traces of methane (a gas potentially associated with life) is tempered by the rover's limited ability to determine the actual source of the methane. Fortunately there is still a chance to sharpen Curiosity's science program, and NASA's next rover--Mars2020--promises a much tighter focus on new science and the search for life. Virgin Galactic accident casts a shadow over space tourism. On October 31, Virgin Galactic's test model of SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave desert, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Accidents like this are still sadly common in spaceflight, but Virgin Galactic is trying to build a tourist flight service with something resembling commercial air-travel safety. The crash came after 54 previous test flights, a record that looks oddly similar to the safety record of the Space Shuttle. Probably there are still a lot of people who would sign up for a 98% or 99% safe flight, but space tourism won't go mainstream if passengers think there is a 1-in-100 chance they won't come back. The crash suggests that thrill rides into space will remain a lot like climbing Mt Everest for some time: a high risk adventure that attracts a small, dedicated group who want to do it no matter the risk. Titan & Enceladus do not get their close-up. This one is a miss in the most literal sense: We are missing our chance to visit two of the most interesting objects in the solar system. Enceladus has geysers and a sizable ocean under its south pole; Titan, which is about as large as the planet Mercury, has complex organic chemistry, methane rainfall, and a possible buried ocean of its own. Conveniently enough, both of these moons can be found in the same place, in orbit around Saturn. But there are no plans to follow up the Cassini mission and directly explore either of them. A proposal to send a little boat into Titan's lakes got shot down two years ago; as yet, there is no formal NASA support for a concept to gather bits of Enceladus plume and bring them home to search for alien microbes. These need not even be particularly costly missions; they would return incredible science, and possibly yield a revolutionary discovery of life.

Something strange is happening at the center of the Milky Way--just not the expected fireworks (Credit: ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann) Black hole fireworks display canceled. A year ago, astronomers were excited that a gas cloud called G2 was about to pass extremely close to Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Parts of G2 would get sucked up by the black hole, glowing brilliantly before vanishing; observers would see a rare black-hole fireworks display that would reveal a lot about the enigmatic beast at the center of it all. What we actually got was...pretty dark and quiet. Maybe G2 is actually a shrouded star, not a cloud, and so proved unexpectedly resilient. The questions will undoubtedly inspire some fascinating new research, but for now the big event looks more like a dud. Dark matter searches come up completely empty. Boy was I wrong about this one. I really felt like scientists were closing in on an answer to the mystery of what makes up the unseen 5/6ths of the universe. If so, you wouldn't know it from the 2014 news. We're fairly sure dark matter is there, because we can measure its gravitational pull, but damn is it dark. New, more sensitive detectors failed to find dark matter particles bumping into normal atoms; a gamma-ray emission that looked like dark matter particles decaying seems to have been nothing but a statistical fluke; and the AMS-02 experiment aboard the space station failed to find its own hoped-for signal. Instead we've been bombarded with long-shot ideas about what dark matter is and how to find it. Sorry, no warp drive. No vacuum-plasma thrusters. Move along. I've already made my thoughts known about this one. A claim that "NASA" had validated a space engine that uses no propellant (and that violates known physics) got widely replayed by publications and reporters that should have known better. Not that breakthroughs cannot happen--they can, they do, and I would love to see something replace slow, expensive chemical rockets. But wishful thinking is not the way to do science, and it is not the way to report it either. Extra demerits for the outlets that publicized artist Mark Rademaker's "design" for a warp-drive spaceship (a lovely fanboy doodle, really) and reported it as NASA's Starship Enterprise. Show me a credible warp drive, on the other hand, and I'll be the first to celebrate. Or just show me an ion drive sending the Dawn spacecraft to Ceres, or a good old-fashioned fast trajectory to Pluto. Those are plenty exciting...

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