2019 in space: 25 notable missions from the last year
So far, there have been over 90 space launches in 2019, and there were 114 space launches in 2018. In any given year, new missions into space are launched while others come to an end. Since the 1950s, people have launched spacecraft in the name of science, exploration, and nationalism. At any given time, dozens of spacecraft—most robotic, and a few with a human crew—are exploring the solar system and beyond.
Many milestones have already been reached in the 21st century, and dozens more will take place in the coming decade. In 2019, China landed the Chang'e 4 spacecraft on the dark side of the moon—a first for any space mission—and expects to have its third space station fully operational by 2022. SpaceX in 2020 intends to launch 12,000 communication satellites into orbit, Roscosmos will allegedly offer space tours in 2021, and the Indian Space Research Organization plans to send its first group of Indian astronauts on a weeklong trip into space by 2022.
To take a closer look at notable space missions in 2019, Stacker combed over some of the most significant missions of the year, encompassing landmark human, scientific, and technological accomplishments. Stacker's slideshow of 25 notable missions from 2019 includes the first all-female spacewalk, the world's first expedition to the moon's far side, the flyby of the most distant solar system object ever recorded, NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon, and the discovery of strange seasonal atmospheric fluctuations on Mars. These stories are international, marking achievements by both public and private efforts, and as such, involve people of many nations and aims.
Keep reading to learn more about 25 notable space missions and what they accomplished in the year 2019.
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Flying by the icy snowman Arrokoth / New Horizons
On Jan. 1, NASA's New Horizons probe flew past the most distant solar system object yet visited: the small icy world Arrokoth in the Kuiper belt, 4 billion miles from the sun. Formerly known as 2014 MU69, the object resembles two red-colored squashed spheres stuck together. Arrokoth means "sky" in the Powhatan/Algonquian language and is only about 22 miles long and 6 miles thick.
Landing on the moon's far side / Chang'e-4
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program probe Chang'e-4 (for the moon goddess in Chinese mythology) landed on the moon's far side on Jan. 3, the first craft to ever accomplish such a landing. The lander deployed a rover named Yutu-2, which has identified rocks that formed deep under the moon's surface. The moon's far side, which never faces Earth, is very different from the side seen from Earth, and signals from far-side moon missions require using relay satellites since they can't communicate directly with the ground.
The most energetic cosmic explosion / Swift
Long-duration gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the explosions of stars significantly larger than the sun, and as such, are some of the brightest events in the cosmos. NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, which was built to monitor these explosions, spotted the most energetic burst ever seen in January. The gamma-ray light emitted by GRB 190114C had roughly 10 times more energy than any other GRB ever seen. This means the material emitting the light was moving at 99.999% of the speed of light.
The Opportunity rover reaches its life's end / Mars Exploration Rovers
This year marked the end of one of NASA's most successful missions, the Mars Exploration Rovers, when the Opportunity rover failed to wake up from hibernation following a dust storm on Mars. Designed to operate for 90 Martian days and travel just 1 kilometer, Opportunity lasted for 15 years and traveled 45 kilometers. During its long scientific life, it uncovered evidence for Mars' watery past in the form of minerals that form in wet conditions.
Successful test of space capsule / Crew Dragon
After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has commissioned the development of new capsules for use by astronauts to get to the International Space Station (ISS). One of these, the Crew Dragon from the private company SpaceX, successfully completed an uncrewed test docking with the ISS on March 3 and returned to Earth on March 8. Unfortunately, a later test of this capsule failed catastrophically, and further tests without humans are continuing before any astronauts can be safely trusted to the equipment.
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Rocks all the way down / OSIRIS-REx
NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu last year, and since early this year has been hunting for a place to sample the material on the surface before returning to Earth. Just one problem: Bennu's surface is much rockier than expected, meaning it's been difficult to find a safe place to use the spacecraft's sampling arm. Meanwhile, OSIRIS-REx has revealed active plumes of material jetting from the asteroid's surface, which is a fun mystery for scientists to solve.
Israel's first moon probe crashes / Beresheet
Landing on other worlds is hard, as evidenced by the crash of Israel's first moon probe Beresheet on April 11, when its engine suffered a minor problem that escalated upon its final approach to the moon. Beresheet (meaning "in the beginning" in Hebrew) was funded privately by the nonprofit SpaceIL and the company Israel Aerospace Industries. Israel is already planning the next attempt, following other historical space programs that had to try more than once before succeeding.
Blue Origin tests reusable rocket / New Shepard
One of the candidates to ferry astronauts to and from orbit is the reusable New Shepard rocket from the private spaceflight company Blue Origin. Blue Origin successfully tested New Shepard without a human crew three times this year, in January, May, and December. The tests are in preparation for flights involving astronauts and "space tourists" in the future. The May and December test launches also carried art projects and dozens of science experiments designed by university researchers to study various conditions in microgravity. The Dec. 11 test marked the 12th of its kind for Blue Origin's reusable rocket.
First fleets of internet satellites launched / Starlink
On May 23, SpaceX launched the first 60 Starlink satellites designed to provide global internet access, followed by a second launch on Nov. 11. The high visibility of these satellites to astronomers has raised concerns around the world since SpaceX and other companies plan to launch thousands eventually. This has the potential to complicate astronomical surveys, including those dedicated to the early detection of asteroids.
Jupiter's changing magnetic field / Juno
NASA's Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, mapping the giant planet's gravity and magnetic field to understand its mysterious interior. This year, Juno provided the first data on how Jupiter's magnetic field changes over time, the first such measurements for any planet other than Earth. These fluctuations indicate that the magnetic field may be driven by fast-moving particles deep inside Jupiter.
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