NASA has had a very good year. Seriously, NASA has had the sort of "very good year" that Frank Sinatra used to sing about.
At the end of last year, we started to notice something different with NASA. After years of floundering around without any real sense of direction or a mission (or, you know a decent operating budget), NASA seemed to find a sense of purpose toward the end of 2014 when they finally launched Orion, the spacecraft that is slated to one day tote astronauts to the Martian surface, in a flawless execution.
The Orion victory seemed to bring new life and vitality to NASA and NASA scientists went into 2015 ready to finally start showing the country and the rest of the world why this space agency still matters.
Sure, NASA is now even more intent on handing over things like transportation and the International Space Station to commercial space companies in the coming years — that was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's main point when he spoke in Houston in November — but the agency has also actually been doing big things this year, making the kinds of discoveries that fire up the imagination and get everyone looking up at the stars again and seeing space as a place of possibility.
And because NASA has a long record of being savvy about new technology and social media, the space agency has used its Instagram account — which currently has about 7.5 million followers — to share striking images that can't help but grab the eye and make a person more curious than ever to see what NASA is up to.
But what's really been pure gold for NASA this year is the way the space agency has used Instagram to show people what they're working on, fantastic photos of out-of-this-world things, and then to explain it. We're not saying that NASA's Instagram account is why the space agency is set to get its largest budget increase in more than a decade — and it's not because of The Martian either — but these photos that give people such a clear and fascinating window into what exactly it is that NASA does can only have helped.
For one thing, there have been NASA's incredible discoveries on Mars and NASA officials have been smart enough to make sure that these discoveries translate to photos of the planet and of the Curiosity rover exploring the planet.
Yes, NASA is working to get astronauts to the red planet, but in the meantime NASA scientists have made some incredible discoveries about Mars using data gathered from the Curiosity rover and things they've observed from right here on Earth. In the past year we've learned through NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that the planet has liquid water on it, briny stuff that occasionally trickles over the Martian slopes causing dark streaks to appear. We also found out, courtesy of NASA, about the solar winds that stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere and turned it into the dusty, barren hunk of a planet we see today.
Meanwhile, Curiosity has been sending back all kinds of pictures, including this selfie:
Even though NASA officials have recently made it crystal clear that the space agency will be ditching the International Space Station in the next decade, it's still getting plenty of use right now. For one thing, NASA started its twin study when it sent Astronaut Scott Kelly up to the ISS about nine months ago to spend a year in space.
This study is remarkable — and a little more fancy than the Russian one since the Russians don't have twin astronauts — because NASA is monitoring Scott Kelly on the ISS while also keeping track of retired astronaut Mark Kelly back on Earth. By the end of all of this NASA will have a beginning of an idea of what it means to the human body to spend a year in space versus a year on Earth. That's the kind of info that the agency will need as we get closer to actually sending astronauts out of Low Earth Orbit, past the moon and to new worlds, starting with Mars in the 2030s.
Also, Kelly has been snapping incredible pictures and posting them on Twitter and on NASA's Instagram:
NASA's Cassini spacecraft, an unmanned craft that arrived and started probing Saturn (ha) in 2004, has continued to send back remarkable images of Saturn's moon, Enceladus. NASA researchers have been into Enceladus ever since they recognized signs of geologic activity on the icy moon and something liquid and sloshy at the moon's south pole.
This year it was confirmed that Enceladus holds a global ocean beneath its crust. In mid-December Cassini conducted its final fly-by of Enceladus. Cassini won't be stopping by anymore but it will continue to monitor the moon from afar for the duration of its mission through 2017. Why? Well, because it's a moon with a big old ocean on it. Who wouldn't want to find out more about what's going on up there?
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And then there was the pure giddy joy we all got to experience when NASA's New Horizon's probe started swooping past Pluto and sending back the first close-ups we've ever had from the planet. Within days of the probe's arrival we learned all kinds of things about Pluto, like the fact that the dwarf planet is actually a lot bigger than we thought, measuring 1,473 miles across. We also learned that Pluto has a polar ice cap and that the planet's atmosphere is leaking faster than scientists expected. And, most importantly, we learned that Pluto has a heart, as you can see below. Well, you know, it's not a heart so much as a heart shape, but it's a nice idea.
The best part about the whole Pluto probe thing is how everyone reacted to all this new information about a planet more than 3 billion miles away. People got excited and interested.
So now we get to sit and ponder all of the possibilities of the coming year. Imagine what's going to happen if NASA really does keep its sense of direction — the direction being space around the moon, asteroids and then Mars — and a budget to back up the space agency's sense of mission. We won't be so foolish to say that NASA will be able to do anything, but it might actually be able to do the things that NASA officials have been saying they intend to do. In a world where a lot of people and agencies promise things and don't deliver, we're looking at a space agency that may actually follow through in the coming year. We can't wait to see what 2016 will bring, NASA-wise.