The Top 10 Space and Physics Stories of 2014

Posted by K R on

From humanity’s first, flawed foray to the surface of a comet to the celebrated discovery of (and less celebrated skepticism about) primordial gravitational waves, 2014 has brought some historic successes and failures in space science and physics. Here are my selections for the top ten stories from this year, with a look forward at what might happen next. 1. Philae lands on a comet The biggest story beyond Earth’s atmosphere was unquestionably the spectacular November climax to the European Space Agency’s decade-long Rosetta mission, when the Philae lander touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Alas, Philae didn’t stick its landing — instead, it bounced into a shadowy crevice where, starved of sunlight, its solar-powered batteries ran out of juice. But before it went into hibernation, the lander managed to pull off some impressive science. With a bit of luck and ingenuity, mission scientists may coax Philae back to life next year, as the comet swings closer to the sun. 2. Curiosity finds methane on Mars NASA’s Curiosity rover, tasked with searching for signs of past habitability and life on the Red Planet, may instead have found something far more interesting: evidence for present, extant life. The rover has periodically detected mysterious spikes of methane, also known as natural gas, wafting through the thin Martian air, scientists announced in December. The gas can be produced abiotically, but on Earth at least, methane is mostly made by life – specifically a class of bacteria appropriately called “methanogens” — which suggests that Mars may host methane-belching microbes. It’s too soon to say for sure, but Curiosity and future robotic explorers, such as Europe’s ExoMars mission and NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, will work on solving the mystery. 3. Cosmologists glimpse gravitational waves from the big bang – or just some galactic dust In March, researchers from the BICEP2 experiment said they had seen signs of gravitational waves in the oldest light in the universe, the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The announcement set people to speculating about future Nobel Prizes, because the observations would provide crucial evidence for the cosmological theory of “inflation,” which posits that the universe experienced a huge increase in its expansion rate shortly after the big bang. Early inflation of the universe, if true, would have created gravitational waves that imprinted curlicue polarization patterns on the CMB — the very patterns that the BICEP2 team saw. Subsequent analyses, however, were somewhat deflating: they suggested that BICEP2’s observed polarization patterns might only be due to the cosmic microwave background scattering off clumps of simple interstellar dust. The story is far from over: next-generation instruments may deliver more data for or against the BICEP2 result as soon as next year. More stories via Scientific American Blog Network.

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