Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Space Highlights - December 23, 2015

December 23, 2015

SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster for the first time this past week, landing the first stage booster vertically at Cape Canaveral shortly after launching 11 small data-relay satellites for Orbcomm.  The booster recovery follows several failed attempts at demonstrating SpaceX's reusable booster concept.

The recent successful vertical recover of a spent booster by SpaceX has been compared by some to the similar vertical recovery by Blue Origin, which took place last month.  The fundamental difference, however, was that the Blue Origin flight was focused around a sub-orbital, "space tourism" capsule, whereas the SpaceX launch recovered the first stage booster from a successful satellite launch.

India's ISRO successfully launched six satellites for Singapore this past week, and also successfully re-started the upper stage of its PSLV booster - in a test for possible future launches.

Arianespace successfully completed its 12th satellite launch for the year this past week, a new record in annual launches for the European company.

China launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) this past week - joining an international effort to hunt for evidence of dark matter and to quantify its behavior.  Evidence for dark matter has been confirmed by astronomers, but the sub-atomic particles that are believed to make up dark matter have never been directly observed.

NASA has announced a delay in its next Mars mission, to repair a leak in one of the scientific instruments.  The Insight spacecraft had been scheduled for launch in March.  The delay will mean that the spacecraft - which was to have delivered a lander to the Martian surface - will be delayed by at least two years, before the two planets are favorably aligned again.

French researchers have proposed that many of the more recently formed gullies observed at Martian mid-latitudes were likely formed by dry ice, not water.  This finding in no way contradicts recent evidence for liquid water at select Martian locations today, but merely underscores that more than one form of erosion is currently active on the Martian surface.

NASA has released images from Cassini's final, close encounter with Saturn's moon Enceladus.  The probe passed within 3,100 miles of the moon's surface.

NASA also released images of Saturn's odd moon Phoebe - a pockmarked body that orbits in the opposite direction relative to Saturn's other moons, and which is probably a captured asteroid or comet.

The Dawn spacecraft has settled into its final, lowest orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, and has begun to transmit close-up images.

Researchers highlighted the latest findings from the New Horizons spacecraft and its recent fly-by of Pluto during last week's meeting of the American Geophysical Union.  Considerable attention has focused on the networks of eroded valleys which point to glacial activity.

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