3 Big Moments From Space In 2015
It's been an exciting year for developments in space. NPR Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel shares three highlights with host Linda Wertheimer.
SpaceX rocket lands on Earth.Earlier this week, the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX successfully landed a 15-story-tall section of one of their rockets back on Earth.
"In some sense, this was just another rocket launch for SpaceX," Geoff says. "The mission sent 11 communication satellites into orbit. But what really makes this special is what happened to the first stage of the rocket. Normally this would just fall back to Earth. This time, SpaceX flipped it around and then flew it back to near the launch site and actually landed it. They fired the engines a second time and it sort of floated down onto the pad at Cape Canaveral. It was pretty spectacular to watch. ...
"SpaceX describes it as trying to shoot a pencil over the Empire State Building and having it turn around and land in a shoebox vertically. That's how hard this is."
The first up-close look at Pluto.A probe called New Horizons swept past Pluto and gave us our first real up-close pictures over the summer. This was a huge achievement.
"It's not at all what you would expect," Geoff says. "It's not sort of a cratered, dead world. It's got huge mountains, it's got glaciers, there's a lot going on down there. Pluto could be a remnant from the early solar system. It could really tell us a lot about how we all got here.
"For me this was really the highlight of the year personally. Humanity nearly 10 years ago sends a probe more than three billion miles away — so far away it took 4 1/2 hours just for the photos to make their way back at the speed of light. This little probe gets these great pictures, send them back, and we learn an enormous amount. It was very cool."
Advances in space grub. "Space food is notoriously horrible to eat," Geoff says. "It's all vacuum packed and freeze dried. They extrude it out of these packages. It comes out as a paste. It looks awful.
"But this year they managed to grow some lettuce on the International Space Station. And so for the first time, the astronauts were actually allowed to eat it. They brought up a little balsamic vinaigrette to put on it.
"This sounds kind of trivial ... but it's not as easy as it sounds. It's zero gravity, so you have to get the water, which is just floating around, to go in the roots. It's a trick. But if you go to space, you're not going for the food, let's face it."
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