2014 In Spaceflight: Top of the Month

A lot of amazing things happened in 2014, but for this year-in-review survey, let’s pick just one each month.

January: Cygnus ORB-1 Mission Complete

The second Cygnus spacecraft, C. Gordon Fullerton, blasted off from Wallops Island, Virginia aboard an Antares rocket on the first operational cargo mission by Orbital Sciences, following the G. Gordon Low in the previous year.  2014 would also see the Janice E Voss reach the Space Station before the unfortunate loss of the Deke Slayton on the ORS-4 mission, when the Antares rocket succumbed to an engine failure a few seconds into the flight.  Orbital Sciences is preparing to return Cygnus to flight using Atlas V as a gapfiller while engine manufacture NPO Energomash prepares the RD-193 to replace their remanufactured N-1 legacy NK-33 engines.  RD-193 is close cousin to the RD-180 used on Atlas V and is an excellent engine with superior performance.  But let’s remember January’s flight, officially bringing NASA a second domestic cargo provider.


February: GPM Core Launch

The Global Precipitation Monitor Core is a multinational mission controlled by Goddard Space Flight Center and involving teams from the US, Japan, and Europe.  The job is to produce an unprecedented map over time of worldwide precipitation patterns.  It was launched by Japan’s H2 rocket:

March: MESSENGER celebrates three years at Mercury

Now three years into its two-year mission in one of the most hostile environments in the solar system, MESSENGER is enduring intense solar heating even as it strives to maintain its delicate orbit through mass concentrations on Mercury that are just as frustrating as those around the Moon; it will probably only be able to manage its orbit until sometime in 2015.


April: LADEE Goes Out With a Bang

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer was designed to study the extremely tenuous atmosphere of the Moon, a crucial thing for understanding the process that distribute dust across the lunar surface, which we’ll need to know before we start colonizing.  In April, its propellant exhausted so it could no longer fight against the lumpy gravitational field of the Moon, it was deliberately crashed into the farside, safely away from the historically sensitive Apollo and Lunkohod sites.  LRO later found the mark it left:


May: ISEE-3 Reawakens

Launched in 1978, ISEE-3 became the first probe to reside at a Lagrange Point.  Four years later, it was redesignated ICE and sent through the tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner — the first time any spacecraft attempted such a maneuver.  It next flew through the tail of Comet Halley, and then went on to study the heliosphere in conjunction with Ulysses.  But funding ran out in 1997 and the probe was put into hibernation.  NASA recontacted it a few more times, but did not have funding to reactivate it.  So a team of dedicated amateurs (many of whom were former NASA engineers) received permission to mount their mission to take control of the probe.  They obtained funding via Kickstarter, and in May of 2014, successfully reawakened ISEE-3.  Its instruments were still alive and well, but unfortunately an attempted trajectory correction maneuver failed, possibly due to depleted nitrogen pressurant.  The team still continued gathering science data, intending to continue doing so until the probe again receded too far from Earth to communicate.



June: Cassini Celebrates 10 Years At Saturn

Continuing the theme of spacecraft way past their warranty period, Cassini last June reached 10 years into its 4-year mission.  It is now in its second and final mission extension; this mission extension will end with a suicide plunge into the planet Saturn.  NASA had considered using flybys of moons to eject Cassini from the Saturn system at the end of the mission, but the opportunity to get additional data from Titan and Enceladus plus the unprecedented opportunity to dive within Saturn’s rings for a prolonged period of time was just too good to pass up.


July: Opportunity Breaks Lunokhod 2’s Record

NASA announced that Opportunity had now travelled 40 km, which beat Lunokhod 2’s impressive record of 39 km, giving it the title of the most travelled wheeled vehicle off the planet Earth.  Though it has taken severe wear and tear, over ten years into its 90 day mission, Opportunity is still going, trundling along, backwards, dragging a dead wheel behind it.  In honor of the occasion, NASA had it look around, found a crater, and named it “Lunokhod Crater”


August: SpaceX Flies To Geostationary Orbit

The Falcon 9 has made its first deliver to geosynchronous transfer orbit, a job normally handled by larger and more massive rockets.  To do so, it had to omit the equipment for a first stage return test (SpaceX is working towards becoming the first nation to achieve the dream of a fully reusable flyback liquid booster) but it did manage it.  The age of commercial spaceflight is truly upon us, and the current market cost leaders (Russia and China) must take note.

September: Rosetta Arrives at 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko

This was a tough month to pick, what with India’s first Mars orbiter and the MAVEN probe arriving in Mars orbit, and Curiosity reaching its target, the slopes of Mount Sharp, but in the end, the most historic event of the month was the successful rendezvous of Rosetta with 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a decade-long snooze.  Its piggybacked Philae lander would have to wait a few more months before descending to the comet’s surface; cross your fingers and hope Philae wakes up again in the growing sun over the next few months.  😉


October: Comet Siding Spring Visits Mars

In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, scientists discovered a comet, dubbed Siding Spring for the observatory used to track it, which was almost certainly making its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud.  And although the comet would have a lousy appearance from Earth, the view from Mars would be a completely different story.  So the fleet of spacecraft at Mars worked together, seizing the opportunity to get a targeted set of observations of a pristine comet — the only comet studied in this way which is *not* a Jupiter family short-period comet.  Although the rovers on the surface got disappointing pictures (their cameras are really not optimized for astrophotography), the MAVEN spacecraft collected data which indicates the planet would’ve seen an astonishing meteor shower.


November: RIP Venus Express

And at the end of November, Venus made its final trajectory correction maneuver during a dip into Venus’ thick atmosphere.  Contact was lost and never regained, so it is presumed that it finally burned the last of its propellant.  With nine years around the most hostile planet in the inner solar system, it performed beautifully.  But alas, all good things must come to an end, and so did Venus Express.


December: Orion MPCV Exploration Test Flight 1

And I’ll finish out with the first major step towards human in deep space: the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft.  Since its ride isn’t ready yet, it took a Delta IV Heavy instead, currently the most powerful vehicle in the US inventory.  And dang, but it looked good.  The vehicle performed two orbits of the Earth, rising high enough on the second to encounter the Van Allen Belts and qualify the spacecraft in that environment, and returns fast enough to validate the heatshield for a lunar or even interplanetary return.


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