Voyager 2 may have been the second of NASA’s famous twin exploration spacecraft but it actually launched first, on August 20, 1977. Eight and a half years later it became the first (and, to date, last) spacecraft to visit Uranus, at 31,500 miles across the third largest planet in the Solar System. Voyager 2 made its closest pass by Uranus 32 years ago, giving us our best views ever of the enormous ice giant planet and its moons.
“We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
– William Anders, Apollo 8 Commander
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968, the Apollo 8 CSM entered orbit around the Moon and, after completing 4 full orbits, provided the three astronauts on board with an amazing sight: a blue Earth rising* beyond the Moon’s cratered limb. Commander Frank Borman spotted the scene first and, after taking a 70mm black-and-white photograph, was able to rotate the Command Module so Earth remained in view through the small windows while CM pilot Jim Lovell captured this famous image on color film. It was the first time any humans saw the Earth from the vicinity of the Moon…and it was also the first Christmas that astronauts spent in space.
“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” Jim Lovell said.
On Feb. 7, 1984, astronaut Bruce McCandless II became the first “human satellite” when he performed the first test flight of NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit during STS-41B. Propelled by 24 small nitrogen-powered thrusters, the chair-like MMU allowed McCandless (who helped engineer the Unit at Lockheed Martin) to travel freely through space without any tethers or cords connecting him to a spacecraft. In the iconic image above, an edit of a photo captured by STS-41B pilot Hoot Gibson, McCandless is seen floating against the blackness of space. Here he was just a few feet away from the bay of the space shuttle Challenger, but he would eventually reach a distance of 320 feet (98 meters) from the orbiter!
A former Navy captain and previously Capcom for the Apollo 11 lunar mission, McCandless was 46 years old when he performed his historic tether-free EVA in 1984. This past Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, Bruce McCandless II passed away at the age of 80.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bruce’s family,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “He will always be known for his iconic photo flying the MMU.”
Saturn has its rings, Mars has its rusty landscape, Earth has its whales, water, and wi-fi…and Jupiter has its Great Red Spot. The giant gas planet’s enormous orange storm—once over twice the diameter of Earth but today “only” about 1.3 times as wide—is one of the most distinctive planetary features in our Solar System. It’s so well-known that even young children are sure to include its orangey oval when drawing Jupiter!
But as famous as it is, there’s a lot we still don’t know about Jupiter’s giant storm. NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched in August 2011, has now been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016 and has been using its suite of science instruments to investigate the planet’s complex atmosphere like never before possible. Thanks to Juno, for the first time scientists are able to “see” deep below Jupiter’s dense clouds (in microwave wavelengths, that is) and find out what’s happening inside the GRS. What they’ve discovered is a storm hundreds of miles deep with a hot base that powers its winds.
“This object came from outside our solar system.”
— Rob Weryk, postdoctoral researcher at University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy
On October 14, 2017, what appears to be a comet (er, make that asteroid…read more below) sped past Earth at a distance of about 15 million miles after swinging around the Sun. It had come within 23.4 million miles of our home star over a month earlier on Sept. 9, and in fact wasn’t spotted by astronomers until Oct. 18—four days after its closest pass by us.
Further observations showed that the approximately 525-foot-wide object (an estimate based on its reflectivity) first approached traveling 16 miles a second from the direction of the constellation Lyra—quite a high angle from the plane of the rest of the Solar System—and is on a hyperbolic trajectory, moving quickly enough both in- and outbound along its course to permanently escape the Sun’s gravity unlike any other
comet asteroid ever observed.