If you couldn't tell already, NASA is having a great year.
One of our longest-running space missions finally passed Pluto after a 10-year mission. We've continued to find Earth-similar planets. Astronauts are eating food grown in outer space. Even in the face of budget cuts, the nation's space agency had some stellar highlights. Here are nine things we've already learned about space this year. Even better, we've got four months left to explore.
We learned Pluto has a heart.
In July, the New Horizons spacecraft completed its almost decade-long trip to Pluto, showing us a perspective of Pluto we've never seen before. In doing so, we learned Pluto is actually red and has a giant frozen heart on it due to carbon monoxide ice. Most important, it gave us the latest close-up, completing years of research into the distant, cold dwarf planet.
We confirmed the existence of Earth's "bigger, older" cousin, Kepler-452b.
In July, the alien-world-hunting Kepler Space Telescope aimed its lens at Kepler-452b, a planet 1,400 light-years away and about 60% larger in diameter than Earth — the first near-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone. As it turns out, there may be a billion other planets like it. And the Kepler Space Telescope is the tool scientists are going to use to find them.
For the first time, space explorers ate food they grew in space.
In early August, astronauts aboard the International Space Station ate food they grew onboard, discovering fresh produce can be part of voyaging astronauts' diets while orbiting beyond Earth's atmosphere. The Veggie system, designed by ORBITEC, a company that designs space and bio-production systems, is the first open-air vegetable garden on the ISS. Through careful light manipulation and few resources, it could be the answer to keeping future planetary colonizers fed in unfamiliar environments.
But it doesn't just help people in space. Finding a way to reduce the demanding needs of traditional farming could mean being able to farm in more isolated, barren parts of the world, meaning developing nations wouldn't need to import from other countries
They discovered a beautiful new nebula.
This year, a new image from the NASA/European Space Agency Hubble Space Telescope revealed a new one: the Lagoon Nebula, a brilliant, hot, glowing gas cloud, in the middle of the constellation Sagittarius. While it sounds peaceful, what you're actually seeing are intense winds rousting the clouds and churning the gas. For something so beautiful, it would kick your ass like a prizefighter.
Astronomers confirmed the closest Earth-like exoplanet outside our solar system.
Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA astronomers have confirmed what's been named HD 219134b, the closest rocky (that is, not made of gas) exoplanet to Earth, a mere 21 light-years away. Being realistic, that still isn't physically reachable in any reasonable amount of time, since one light-year is 5,878,499,810,000 miles, but for research purposes, it's going to be heavily studied as a way to learn more about our own planet's beginnings, since the only planet any closer, GJ674b, doesn't have any indication of being Earth-like.
"Now we have a local specimen to study in greater detail," said Michael Gillon of Belgium's University of Liege, lead scientist for the Spitzer detection of the transit, according to NASA. "It can be considered a kind of Rosetta Stone for the study of super-Earths."
NASA released its "EPIC" new image of Earth.
Last month, NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory showed off what its incredible onboard hardware, the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, or EPIC, can really do. At a distance of 1 million miles from Earth, it shot this beauty. Officially, its function is to conduct image-based studies, like examining the effect of sunlight separated by air molecules. But clearly it operates in one way that appeals to those of us who don't work at a space agency: showing us detailed images of our little blue marble.
A satellite uncovered the real depths of climate change.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory discovered that the Larsen B Ice Shelf, which has been around for "at least 10,000 years," according to JPL scientist Ala Khazendar, could disintegrate within the decade. If that happens, it won't be able to stop glaciers from floating into the ocean, making ocean levels rise faster as glaciers melt in open water.
The loss of these glacial gatekeepers are alarming for the researchers studying them. Larsen B's brother, Larsen C, is huge compared to its neighbors, and it's also showing signs of weakening. According to Euronews, Glaciologist David Vaughan said that if Larsen C melts, they "expect that the sea-level rise around the world will be something in excess of 50 centimeters higher by 2100 than it is at present and that will cause problems for coastal and low-lying cities."
A spacecraft found two eerily bright lights on a distant dwarf planet.
Perhaps one of the coolest and practically sci-fi-esque discoveries this year has been the two bright spots on the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet hanging out between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft photographed the spots from 29,000 miles away, too far to determine exactly what they are. But they exist in a crater about two miles deep and mysteriously reflect a lot more sunlight than anything else around them.
Existing theories include ice volcanoes or salt patches. Luckily, the Dawn mission involves orbiting Ceres, and more detailed images could start popping up soon, giving researchers a clearer idea of what's really happening on the unusual surface area.
We got to see new images of the Pillars of Creation nebula.
The first Pillars of Creation photos were taken in 1995. In the last 20 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been collecting more, making composites and piecing them together in a way that will put your jaw on the floor.
Sadly, there's evidence that the stunning nebula may have been destroyed by an explosion years ago, and we're only just now seeing it thanks to, you know, the time it takes to see something 7,000 light-years away from Earth.
We get more hopeful and more courageous in our exploration with every new discovery from our nation's space agency. In the near future, those discoveries will include the Juno mission to explore our solar system's largest gas giant, Jupiter, examining the deep interior of Mars via the Insight lander, and the Osiris-Rex mission to retrieve asteroid samples for research — possibly the beginning of the road to asteroid mining.
We've already said how important it is to continue supporting NASA, whether they're exploring above our heads or beneath our feet. If the agency, with help from international allies, has already made this much headway in under a year, imagine what it can do in coming years. The future is looking extremely cool.