For space enthusiasts worldwide, 2004 was a year of new discoveries, broken records, and a disappointment or two. Check out this list of the 10 biggest space stories of 2004, and be sure to search the Planetary Times archives for more information.
1. Spirit and Opportunity Find Evidence of Water on Mars
As soon as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers landed on the surface of Mars in January, they began returning valuable data that hinted at a previous history of water activity on Mars. Spirit and Opportunity have uncovered rock patterns, mineral presence, and spherule existence on the Martian surface that strongly suggest that water once flowed freely on the Red Planet.
2. New Class of Extrasolar Planets Discovered
Astronomers recently found a new class of planets beyond our solar system. The planets are about 10 to 20 times the size of Earth – far smaller than any previously detected – and make up a new class of Neptune-sized extrasolar planets. One of the new planets joins three others around the nearby star 55 Cancri to form the first known four-planet system.
3. Cassini Arrives at Saturn
The Cassini spacecraft, along with the attached Huygens probe, returned stunning data as it approached the ringed planet and finally entered its orbit. Cassini examined Saturn’s rings, discovered two new moons, and highlighted the differences between Titan and Phoebe, two of the planet’s most intriguing moons.
4. SpaceShipOne Wins X PRIZE
On Oct. 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne and the Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC. team soared more than 360,000 feet above Earth and coasted back to a controlled landing to win the $10 million ANSARI X PRIZE. The historic launch paved the way for the emerging space tourism industry.
5. Genesis Capsule Crashes into Utah Desert
Scientists awaiting the much-anticipated return of NASA's Genesis space capsule suffered a devastating blow on Sept. 8, 2004 as they watched the capsule crash into the Utah desert. The capsule's parachute failed to deploy, sending the probe on an irreversible tailspin. Scientists were, however, able to recover some of the capsule’s valuable solar samples.
6. Scramjet Shatters Speed Record
NASA's X-43A research vehicle screamed into the record books on Nov. 16, 2004, demonstrating that an air-breathing engine can fly at nearly 10 times the speed of sound. Preliminary data from the scramjet-powered research vehicle show its revolutionary engine worked successfully at approximately Mach 10 (nearly 7,000 mph) as it flew at an altitude of approximately 110,000 feet.
7. Shuttle Assembly Begins
Assembly of the Space Shuttle Discovery began in November in preparation for its return to flight mission. The shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and three main engines have been installed, keeping the schedule on track for a May 2005 launch.
8. Sedna Has No Moon
Astronomers studying NASA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images of the Solar System's farthest known object, unofficially named Sedna, were surprised to discover the object does not appear to have a companion moon of any substantial size. This unexpected result might offer new clues to the origin and evolution of objects on the far edge of the solar system.
9. Swift Satellite Launches Into Space
Onlookers watched a trail of smoke slice through the sky as NASA's Swift satellite successfully launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Nov. 20, 2004. The satellite’s mission is to pinpoint the location of distant yet fleeting explosions that appear to signal the births of black holes.
10. Stardust Approaches Comet Wild 2
On Jan. 2, 2004, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft flew within 236 kilometers of Comet Wild 2 and captured thousands of particles in its aerogel collector for return on Earth in January 2006. Findings from a historic encounter between Stardust and a comet have revealed a much stranger world than previously believed. The comet's rigid surface, dotted with towering pinnacles, plunging craters, steep cliffs, and dozens of jets spewing violently, surprised scientists.
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