Space is the place. The stars draw us to look at the night sky and explore the endless bounds of the universe. Even if we won't be living on the moon or in outer space by 2020 like a lot of science fiction promised, the biggest space news of 2019 is still exciting and important stuff.
Many of the space missions that made news in 2019 were launched years earlier and have finally reached their destination. With New Horizons making its landmark flyby on New Year's Day, 2019 started out big for space news and technology. From touching down on the far side of the moon, to exploring the edges of space farther than we've ever gone before, and viewing black holes for the first time, the latest 2019 space news has kept us looking up in wonder.
When astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir stepped out into space on October 18, they completed the first-ever all-female spacewalk, nearly 35 years after Svetlana Savitskay became the first woman to engage in extravehicular activity (EVA) on July 25, 1984. In what the space agency is calling "HERstory," Koch, an engineer, and Meir, a biologist, stepped outside the orbital outpost of the International Space Station to replace a broken battery charger.
Once NASA's Mission Control coordinator Stephanie Wilson gave the word, the two women made their way out into the vacuum of space, taking time to adjust for what's called "translation adaptation." They replaced the failed power controller, which collects and distributes solar power to the space station.
The all-female spacewalk was supposed to happen in March with astronaut Anne McClain and Koch, but NASA did not have the proper size of spacewalking suits for both women, and Nick Hague joined Koch instead of McClain. Veteran astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson said that although the historic event is worth celebrating, "I think many of us are looking forward to it just being normal."
Koch had been in the space station for seven out of 11 planned months, and Meir was on her first spaceflight when they made history together. On December 28, Koch broke the record for the longest space mission by a woman, previously set by Peggy Whitson in 2017. Whitson's record was 289 days, five hours, and one minute, and Koch still had six weeks to go when she surpassed Whitson. Koch said, "Peggy is a heroine of mine and has also been kind enough to mentor me through the years, so it is a reminder to give back and to mentor when I get back." She hopes her return to Earth will warrant new opportunities for science to "see another aspect of how the human body is affected by microgravity for the long term."
Koch, when finished, will have spent a total of 328 days in space, 12 days less than Scott Kelly, who holds the record for NASA's longest spaceflight, at 340 days. Russian physician Valeri Polyakov holds the world record for longest spaceflight, having spent 437 days, 17 hours, and 38 minutes aboard the Mir Space Station from 1994 to 1995.
Ethiopia, with financial and engineering aid from China, launched its first satellite into space on December 20, the culmination of three years of effort by the nation's fledgling space program.
According to The Associated Press, China paid $6 million of the satellite's $8 million price tag, helped Ethiopian engineers in its construction, and launched the satellite from the space station in China's Shanxi Province.
The satellite is intended to be used for monitoring Ethiopia's weather, and to gather environmental and agricultural data, according to the country's officials.
“This is a day we became one of the 70 countries in the world that operate a satellite from space,” said Ahmedin Mohammed, an official with Ethiopia’s Innovation and Technology Ministry. Mohammed added that the government's next goal is to launch a communication satellite and establish their own facility for manufacturing space-faring materials.
On December 6, NASA announced that the liquid hydrogen tank its Space Launch System (SLS) engineers had been testing as part of the Artemis project "withstood more than 260% of expected flight loads before buckling and rupturing," making it "the most powerful rocket ever built," according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. NASA engineers intentionally ruptured the tank to test its limitations, exceeding expectations in preparation for the Artemis lunar mission. The goal of Artemis is to "send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface," which NASA estimates will be possible by 2024 with the success of the SLS rocket.
Neil Otte, chief engineer of the SLS Stages Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said "pushing systems to the point of failure" helps NASA understand how to build the best rocket. By using gaseous nitrogen and hydraulics, the SLS team exposed the pressurized tank to forces so high it ruptured and broke as predicted. The tank test was the "largest-ever controlled test-to-failure" and was meant to help engineers understand the breaking point of their most powerful rocket to date.
NASA scientists launched Voyager probes 1 and 2 in 1977 to study the interworkings of our solar system, as well as space beyond the stars. On November 5, 2018, Voyager 2 finally entered interstellar space, making it the second spacecraft in history to leave the heliosphere - "the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by our sun," according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One year later, Nature Astronomy published five separate articles detailing what Voyager 2 observed when it crossed the boundary of our planetary home.
Voyager 2 has five instruments used for observation, which JPL describes as "a magnetic field sensor, two instruments to detect energetic particles in different energy ranges, and two instruments for studying plasma." Each of the Nature Astronomy articles details what the probe's instruments measured when they exited the heliopause - the boundary of our heliosphere.
Six years prior, in 2012, Voyager 1 encountered the heliopause at a different location, confirming the hypothesis that the edge of our solar system moves with the sun. The results from Voyager 2's crossing allow scientists to test if what Voyager 1 encountered is "characteristic of the entire heliosphere or specific just to the location and time when it crossed."
According to Voyager 2's magnetic field sensor, "heliospheric material is apparently leaking" out of our heliosphere, meaning particles from our solar system are making their way into interstellar space. Voyager 2 also confirmed Voyager 1's unexpected observation that there is "no appreciable change in the direction angles of the magnetic field at the heliopause" within our solar system and in the boundary of interstellar space.