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The 10 biggest space stories of 2016

The first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lands on the deck of the robot ship, “of Course I Still Love You” on April 8, 2016 (Credit: SpaceX)

2016 was a very busy year in the space.

A number of high-profile missions lifted off, the others reach their destination after a long journey through deep space, and a few, unfortunately, crashed and burned.

Here Space.com’s look at the most important space stories of the year. [100 Best Space Photos of 2016]

1. Rocket landings in abundance

More Of Space.com

  • The 100 Best Space Photos of 2016

  • Reusable Rocket Launch Systems: How They Work (Infographic)

  • Blastoff! OSIRIS-REx Launches to Asteroid Bennu (Video)

  • ExoMars mission

Some of the most exciting space action of 2016 involved missiles come down instead of up. The california-based company SpaceX managed to land the first stage of five different Falcon 9 rockets during the operational orbital launches this year; one of the boosters landed back on the launch pad, while the other four landed on robotic “drone ships” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

And the Washington-based company Blue Origin launched, and landed the same suborbital New Shepard rocket four times this year, finally retired the booster after a successful test in October flight . (Dates from 2015, SpaceX now has a total of six successful rocket landings, and Blue Origin has five.)

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin — which are led by billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively, focused on developing fully reusable rockets as a way to reduce the cost of the space and the sky to explore. If the above successes show, this year brought both companies closer to that ambitious goal. [Reusable Rocket Launch Systems: How They Work (Infographic)]

2. Juno arrives at Jupiter

NASA’s $1.2 billion Juno probe launched in August 2011, is on a mission to study Jupiter’s atmosphere, composition, and gravitational and magnetic fields. The spacecraft finally arrived at the giant planet this year, slipping into Jupiter’s orbit after acing a make-or-break, 35-minute of the engine burning in the night of 4 July.

The road is a bit bumpy for Juno since then. An apparent valve problem, could the spacecraft of the run of a planned engine burn in October, so Juno will be in a long loop 53-job rather than with his eyes, 14-day science orbit. In addition, there is a glitch caused the probe to go into a protective safe mode shortly before her Oct. 19 Jupiter close approach, as a result, Juno not collect data during the flyby.

But the mission of the members of the team to work through these issues. Juno’s latest close Jupiter flyby, on Dec. 11, went well, and the spacecraft is healthy overall, Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said this month.

3. NASA asteroid-sampling mission departs

Shortly after Juno reaches its destination, another NASA spacecraft began a long deep-space journey. On Sept. 8, the $800 million Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the 1,640 feet meter wide near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018. The probe will study the space rock out of a job for two years, than it is to snag at least 2 ounces of asteroid material in July 2020. In September 2023, in this example, it will return to the Earth, where scientists are investigating the material, in search of the carbon-based building blocks of life, and other interesting molecules. [Blastoff! OSIRIS-REx Launches to Asteroid Bennu (Video)]

4. European Mars mission arrives at the Red Planet

The first phase of the European-led ExoMars mission, launched in March, sending a lander and an orbiter streaks in the direction of the Red Planet. The duo got there in October, but only one of them lived to tell the story.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that will sniff the Martian atmosphere for methane, a possible sign of the Red Planet slipped into orbit, successfully on Oct. 19. But earlier that day, the lander, known as Schiaparelli, crashed on Mars. Schiaparelli’s computer apparently thought the lander was much closer to the surface of the planet than it actually was, and as a result, the vehicle cannot fire its descent, slowing the bow and stern thrusters for nearly long enough, European Space Agency (ESA) officials have said.

Schiaparelli’s most important task was to prove out landing technologies that the life of hunting ExoMars rover down on the Red Planet in 2021. And the data collected during Schiaparelli’s last minutes of life must, indeed, help in this goal, ESA officials have said.

5. Chinese astronauts dock with another space lab

China strives for a private space station in Earth orbit by the early 2020, and the nation made a huge progress in the direction of that goal this year.

China launches its second ever in a space laboratory, known as Tiangong-2, Sept. 15, to help test spacecraft and rendez-vous technologies. Then, on Oct. 18, two astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft linked with the 9.5 tons (8.6 tonnes, Tiangong-2, and remained on board of the lab for a month. The pair period more than doubled the previous Chinese record for the longest manned space mission.

Tiangong-2 is following in the footsteps of the Tiangong-1, launched in September 2011 and hosted three docking missions (two of which were manned) before the end of its service life this past March.

6. Rosetta comet probe diving to her death

Europe’s epic Rosetta comet mission came to an end on Sept. 30, when the probe dove into the surface of the Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This was a planned suicide: The comet was streaking away from the sun and the solar-powered Rosetta would not have been able to stay operational for much longer, ESA, the officials said. [Gallery: Rosetta s Latest Comet Pictures During the Crash-Landing]

Rosetta launched in March 2004 and arrived at 67P in August 2014, in the process of becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit a comet. The mission achieved another first, in November of that year, when the Rosetta mothership dropped a lander called Philae to Comet 67P’s surface. That the landing is not quite as planned, Philae’s anchoring harpoons failed to fire and the lander bounced twice before finally resting in a location that remained mysterious for almost two years. (The Rosetta team find Philae until the beginning of September, just weeks before Rosetta died diving.)

The 1.3 billion euro ($1.36 billion at the current exchange rate) of Rosetta mission captured the best-ever look at a comet, and the mission of the data scientists more insight into these icy wanderers and the solar system early days of the mission, the members of the team have said.

7. SpaceShipTwo back in action

On Oct. 31, 2014, Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, known as the VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a rocket-powered test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The tragedy grounded the company — until this year.

In February, the company unveiled its new SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Unit. The suborbital space plane lifted off with his mothership in a “captive-carry” test for the first time in September, then made its first free-flight test on Dec. 3, glide back to the Earth in a solo runway, landed. The unit will perform a series of such “glide ” flights” for the beginning of the rocket-powered phase of the test campaign.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers to an altitude of 62 miles or so, and then bring them back to Earth. Tickets for a ride on the suborbital space plane is currently selling for $ 250,000.

8. Space is hard: 2016 edition

Like SpaceShipTwo, the story indicates, the space is a difficult proposition, and the world received two reminders of that fact this year.

On Sept. 1, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the pad during a routine pre-launch test, destroying the booster and the $200 million AMOS-6 communications satellite. SpaceX engineers traced the anomaly to the interaction between oxygen and carbon-composite helium container in the Falcon 9’s upper stage. Falcon 9s are grounded since the incident, but one of them must return to flight next month, SpaceX representatives have said.

Then, on Dec. 1, Russia uncrewed Progress spacecraft failed during a cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS). A problem with the third stage of the Progress of the Soyuz rocket apparently doomed cargo ship, which burned up over the south of Russia .

Such cargo-ship incidents are not very uncommon. A other Progress fell back to Earth in May 2015 without reaching the station, and Orbital ATK and SpaceX — both signed ISS re-contracts with NASA — ago their own failure in October 2014 and June 2015, respectively. (Both companies have flown successful cargo missions, since these incidents.)

9. Elon Musk reveal Mars colonization plans, and another team to shoot for the stars

Elon Musk has long dreamed of the colonization of Mars. Now we know how he is going to do it.

At a conference in Mexico in September, the SpaceX chief unveiled blueprints for the planned Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) — a reusable rocket-and-spacecraft duo that Musk said could begin ferrying colonists to the Red Planet by the mid-2020, if all goes according to plan. IT could also fly astronauts to more distant destinations, such as Jupiter, the ocean-harboring moon Europa, Musk said. [Images: SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport]

Musk was not the only person to reveal a bold space vision this year. In April, the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking, a number of other scientists and billionaire investor Yuri Milner announced the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot-project, which aims at the development of a laser-sail space travel system that will accelerate small probes up to 20 percent of the speed of light or so. The long-term goal is to send flotillas of these spacecraft to study Proxima Centauri and other nearby galaxies up close, members of the team said.

10. Long ISS mission ends

The longest ever ISS mission came to an end this year, with the mars landing of the NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.

Kelly and Kornienko spent 11 months aboard the ISS, so that doctors and scientists to collect a wealth of data about the effects of long duration spaceflight on human physiology and behavior. Such data will inform about the preparations for sending astronauts to Mars, NASA officials have said. (It takes six to nine months to get to Mars with currently available propulsion technology.)

 

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