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Science & Environment

2018: A Big Year In Space

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This past year was a weird and eventful one for news from outer space. We saw everything from a red sports car being shot off the planet to a detailed new map of our Milky Way to a mysterious hole drilled in the International Space Station. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to bring us up to date on all that has happened off our planet in 2018. Hi, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that red sports car. Is it still spinning around somewhere outside of the Earth?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I can't think what would have stopped it. I mean, that was truly one of the more bizarre things I've ever seen in covering the space industry. So if you'll remember, that was the vision of Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who founded SpaceX.

SHAPIRO: And Tesla, yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Tesla, a electric car company. And so when he was launching the Falcon Heavy, he needed some dummy weight to put on his rocket. And so he decided why not put my red sports car with the sort of space-suited mannequin sitting in the front seat. And they sent back images of this thing with the blue Earth down below and the red car. I mean, it was kind of a gimmick some people said. But the thing that was not a gimmick was the fact that he built this like super powerful rocket for pretty darn cheap.

SHAPIRO: And this is a precursor to SpaceX's effort to put humans into space, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX is trying also to put humans in space. It has a contract with NASA to take astronauts up to the International Space Station. And that's going to be a big deal because the space shuttle is retired. So NASA has been without its own space vehicle for a while.

SHAPIRO: So a big year for private space travel. But in the meantime, NASA still has to rely on Russian rockets and capsules to get people to the International Space Station. And it was kind of a crazy year for that too, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So yes, that was a very eventful year in terms of Russia too because there was a launch failure in October where the capsule and rocket that we rely on to get people to the International Space Station failed. So this American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to basically abort during launch and come back to Earth. The Russians tracked it down to a damaged sensor. And so now it's flying again. And that whole thing seems to have blown over.

The other thing involving Russia that was really weird this year was the mysterious hole on the International Space Station. So there was this small leak. And they traced it to a tiny hole in a Russian capsule that was attached to the station. And Russia has been trying to run this down. And they recently had the Russian cosmonauts out doing a spacewalk basically like ripping through insulated panels with what looked like a big hunting knife.

SHAPIRO: Did they ever find out what caused the hole?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I haven't heard any official explanation. So if they know, they haven't said it.

SHAPIRO: There was also some news with Virgin Galactic, which wants to take tourists into space. They had a big accomplishment this year, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They said they reached space with their vehicle Spaceship 2. And I guess it depends on what you consider space to be. There's no clear line. The atmosphere just sort of, you know, gets thinner and thinner. But they're doing suborbital tourist flights just to give people, you know, a nice view of the Earth and a little weightlessness. They can't get over to the station or anything like that.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, take us way outside of Earth to the rest of our solar system. What happened there this year?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, let's see. There was a bunch of stuff. So NASA sent a probe to Mars. NASA landed the Insight mission on Mars. It's got a instrument that's like a seismometer which is going to listen to the interior of Mars and see what its interior is like. NASA also launched the Parker Solar Probe. So that's a probe that is moving closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has ever gone before. And then, you have Voyager 2, which was launched in 1977. It reached interstellar space, which is something Voyager 1 did a few years ago.

SHAPIRO: And from beyond the solar system, we mentioned a new map of the Milky Way.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is thanks to the European Space Agency. Their Gaia mission published this new star map of like 1.7 billion stars.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so astronomers were incredibly excited to get all that data and information. There was a history-making moon maybe. So, you know, there's all these planets outside our solar system that people have discovered? Well, researchers think they've discovered the first moon orbiting one of them. And that would be sort of a Neptune-sized moon orbiting a Jupiter-sized planet. NASA also launched tests, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and that's its latest mission to hunt for alien worlds. So it's going to be out there looking at stars trying to find other planets.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce with - can I get a big echo on this? (Echoing) News from space. Thanks, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.