2015 was a big year for science and exploration. Humanity celebrated numerous ‘firsts’ that reminded us we are continuously discovering new, surprising elements about our Universe, both near and far. From Mars to Pluto we have learned a tremendous amount about our orbiting neighbors, and these satellites of the Sun continue to puzzle and astound us.
NASA revealed this year that water flows on present day Mars at intermittent times. Thanks to data from the imaging spectrometer on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers discovered streaks of hydrated minerals on the surface of the planet that appear to fluctuate based on the season. During the warmer season, the streaks extend down steep slopes before fading in the cold season. Scientists hypothesis that this liquid water is present in very salty conditions, lowering the freezing point of the briny water and allowing it flow down these steep surfaces when the temperature gets high enough. This discovery was a massive step forward in the exploration of Mars and the determination if the planet was ever capable of harboring life. Water is considered to be an essential ingredient to life as we know it, and its presence on Mars adds fuel to the fire that life was indeed possible at one time.
New Horizons made a historic fly-by of the icy dwarf planet Pluto in July of 2015, sending back images and data that will take years to sift through and thoroughly research. It will continue to send back data for a full 16 months for scientist to mull over and hypothesis about. Using 3-D images, geologists believe they may have discovered an ice volcano called a cyrovolcanoe. These massive mountains have craters at their summit which is a pretty good indicator that the mountain may have once been active volcanos. Researchers are also hypothesizing that Pluto has been geologically active both in the distant past and the very recent past, cosmically speaking. In space, areas with fewer craters are considered younger then more crater ridden areas. Crater studies on Pluto have revealed varying ages on the surface of the planet, suggesting that certain areas are more geologically active than others.
The International Space Station (ISS) has been very prolific in 2015, with its 15th year of continuous human habitation on the station. This year saw Scott Kelly break the record for the most cumulative days and time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. His presence on the ISS helps researchers better understand the effects of long term space flight on the human body and brain function, preparing future generations for the long trip to Mars and deep space travel. Researchers also grew vegetables on the station; and commercial space companies conducted resupply missions to the crew and launched cubesats for small payload research in orbit.
2015 was a great year for science, technology and further exploration into the unknown. Hopefully 2016 will continue this trend of finding new discoveries that expand our understanding of the Universe and the technology necessary to reach new heights.