2004: YEAR IN REVIEW
(originally run December 31, 2004)
Another year now passes into the history books, which means that it is time once again for this author's semi-objective look at the top ten astronomical and space related news items of the past year (with dates in parentheses indicating the editions of this feature in which the topic in question was discussed). Drumroll, please . . .
10. In October two physicists (Ignazio Ciufolini in Italy and Erricos Pavlis in the U.S.) announced that they had detected evidence of "frame-dragging - a phenomenon predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity - in data taken with two LAser GEOdynamic Satellite (LAGEOS) spacecraft. Although intriguing, these results are not quite universally accepted yet, however the Gravity Probe B spacecraft, launched in April after 40 years of planning, is expected to resolve the matter by the latter part of 2005. (April 16)
9. The Stardust spacecraft, launched back in 1999, successfully flew through the coma of Comet Wild 2 on January 2, collecting samples of cometary material which it will be returning to Earth in January of 2006. Two other missions to comets are now underway (or close to it): the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft was successfully launched in March for a long-term reconnaissance of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and NASA's Deep Impact mission is scheduled for launch in two weeks for an encounter with Comet Tempel 1 to take place next summer. (December 26, 2003; March 12)
8. As many as five comets reached naked-eye visibility during 2004. Two of these, discovered some time ago by the automated LINEAR and NEAT programs, were at their best during the late spring, and were joined by another comet discovered by Australian amateur astronomer William Bradfield. Another Comet LINEAR flirted with naked-eye visibility during the late summer, and Comet Machholz is currently visible in our evening skies. (April 23, May 21, August 6, December 3)
7. The three closest-known approaches to Earth by asteroids all took place during 2004, the closest of these being a miss of only 4000 miles above the Earth's surface by the very tiny asteroid 2004 FU162 at the end of March. The closest predicted approach of any known asteroid also took place this year, when Toutatis passed slightly within one million miles in late September. Just within the past few days another recently-discovered asteroid, 2004 MN4, was beginning to prove "interesting" when calculations indicated a 3% chance of an impact with Earth 25 years from now, however images of the asteroid identified on photographs taken in March have now eliminated the possibility of an impact. (September 17)
6. On June 8 the planet Venus passed directly in front of the sun in an event known as a "transit," the first such event by Venus since 1882. The transit was widely viewed from the eastern hemisphere, and its ending was visible from the eastern portions of North America. Our part of the world gets its turn on June 5, 2012, after which it will be over a century before Venus again transits the sun. (June 4, June 25)
5. In January the Bush administration announced a new space initiative, which includes a return to the moon and an eventual mission to Mars. A perhaps-unintended consequence of this new initiative was a decision by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to cancel a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope scheduled for 2006. After an outcry from the public and from Congress other scenarios, such as a robotic servicing mission, have been considered, however a National Academy of Sciences panel has recently recommended that a manned servicing mission proceed as was originally scheduled. What actually ends up happening remains to be determined, with Administrator O'Keefe scheduled to leave NASA in February and the Space Shuttle's return to flight now planned for mid-2005. (January 16, April 30)
4. After a voyage of almost seven years the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn at the end of June to begin a multi-year reconnaissance of the ringed planet and its moons. It has already reported several notable discoveries; meanwhile, just a few days ago Cassini deployed the Huygens probe which will plunge through the atmosphere of Saturn's large and enigmatic moon Titan on January 14. (June 18, October 1)
3. A trio of American astronomers announced in March their discovery of one of the most bizarre objects yet found in our solar system. The new object is about 2/3 the size of Pluto and orbits the sun in an elongated comet-like orbit with a period of 11,230 years; when nearest the sun (which takes place in 2076) it will still be twice Pluto's average distance from our star. The discoverers have christened the object "Sedna," after the Inuit goddess of the sea. (March 19, December 17)
2. The Ansari X-Prize, wherein $10 million was awarded to the first privately-operated team to achieve two sub-orbital flights within a two-week period, was claimed by California engineer Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites following the successful flight of their vehicle SpaceShipOne on October 4. A series of annual follow-on competitions, dubbed the X-Prize Cup, will be held at White Sands Missile Range (and later the Southwest Regional Spaceport) in New Mexico beginning in 2005. (May 28, October 15)
1. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, touched down on the surface of Mars in January and began intensive study of the red planet. Many exciting discoveries have been reported, including clear evidence that at least parts of the Martian surface were inundated with water during the past. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars since January has detected signs of geologically recent volcanic activity, and atmospheric gases that may possibly be due to life. (January 23, March 5, July 9)
As always, we can expect many exciting events and discoveries to take place in the new year of 2005, and the skies will always be available for our enjoyment and appreciation.
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