For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.
One of the greater challenges of sending payloads to Mars is having to contend with the planet’s atmosphere. While incredibly thin compared to Earth’s (with roughly half of 1% of Earth’s air pressure), the resulting air friction is still an issue for spacecraft looking to land there. And looking to the future, NASA hopes to be able to land heavier payloads on Mars as well as other planets – some of which may have atmospheres as dense as Earth.
A familiar ingredient has been hiding in plain sight on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Using a visible-light spectral analysis, planetary scientists at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have discovered that the yellow color visible on portions of the surface of Europa is actually sodium chloride, a compound known on Earth as table salt, which is also the principal component of sea salt.
In the coming years, NASA has some bold plans to build on the success of the New Horizons mission. Not only did this spacecraft make history by conducting the first-ever flyby of Pluto in 2015, it has since followed up on that by making the first encounter in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – 2014 MU69 (aka. Ultima Thule).
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, but far from being a dull cinder of a world, it has instead turned out to be a real eye opener for geologists. Among the revelations by NASA’s MESSENGER probe, which first flew past Mercury in 2008 and orbited it between 2011 and 2015, is the discovery of a hundred or so bright red spots scattered across the globe. Now they are at last being named.
Volcanic activity on Io was discovered by Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito. She spotted a little bump on Io’s limb while analyzing a Voyager image and thought at first it was an undiscovered moon. Moments later she realized that wasn’t possible — it would have been seen by earthbound telescopes long ago. Morabito and the Voyager team soon came to realize they were seeing a volcanic plume rising 190 miles (300 km) off the surface of Io. It was the first time in history that an active volcano had been detected beyond the Earth.
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by conducting the first flyby of Pluto. This represented the culmination of a nine year journey, which began on January 19th, 2006 – when the spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And before the mission is complete, NASA hopes to send the spacecraft to investigate objects in the Kuiper Belt as well.
This year is shaping up to be another exciting one for space after a bonanza of discoveries and celestial events in 2015. One of my hoped-for highlights of 2016, NASA’s Insight mission, has unfortunately been scrubbed due to a serious leak in last stage testing. But here are three of my particular favourite space missions to watch out for as well as some key night sky events to try and experience throughout 2016.