NASA 2017 The year in Review – Part One

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is shown in an artist’s depiction of its Sept. 15, 2017, plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere

2017 was a year of groundbreaking discoveries and record-setting exploration at NASA. Join the PRIDE family of newspapers for our annual four-part look back at The Year in Space (and on Earth). Part One will examine NASA and the Moon, the Solar System and Beyond; next week, Part Two will more closely explore Mars and the International Space Station; Part Three will look at Aeronautics, Aviation, and Earth Sciences Research; and we conclude in Part Four on Technology and Public Engagement.

The Moon became a key focus point for NASA in 2017, whether it was blocking out the Sun during one of the most-viewed events in U.S. history, or reinvigorating the agency’s human space exploration plans. One of the numerous NASA-related activities and actions the Trump Administration did in 2017 was to reconstitute the National Space Council. During its first meeting on Oct. 5, Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to develop a plan to help extend human exploration across our solar system, and return astronauts to the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars and other destinations.

2017’s top story in terms of public interest for NASA was, by far, the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. It was one of the biggest internet events in recent history and the biggest online event NASA has ever measured. The agency was able to share the scientific study of this celestial phenomenon with millions of people around the world, capturing a wealth of images before, during, and after the eclipse by spacecraft, aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Other highlights in the solar system and beyond include NASA’s Cassini spacecraft’s fateful plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending its 13-year tour of the ringed planet. Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived space mission – NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 – celebrated 40 years of unprecedented science findings and imagery on Sept. 5. NASA continues to communicate with the spacecraft daily as they explore the frontier where interstellar space begins.

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected the first light ever tied to a gravitational-wave event, thanks to two merging neutron stars in the galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star, with three planets located in the habitable zone, the area around a star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope found an exoplanet that snows sunscreen, but only on the side of the planet that permanently faces away from its host star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope team released its most comprehensive and detailed catalog of exoplanet candidates, introducing 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone.

Data from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and other telescopes found evidence for a star that whips around a black hole about twice an hour, which could be the tightest orbital dance ever witnessed between a possible black hole and a companion star.

On Oct. 19, the NASA-funded Pan-STARRS1 telescope discovered the first confirmed object to travel through our solar system from another star — a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a ratio of length to width unlike any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system.

An international team of astronomers led by NASA scientists successfully completed the first global exercise using a real asteroid – 2012 TC4 – to test global response capabilities. The exercise tested the International Asteroid Warning Network for hazardous asteroid observations, modeling, prediction and communication.