After an amazing decade in space, these are humanity’s top achievements - Ars Technica

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After an amazing decade in space, these are humanity’s top achievements - Ars Technica

After an amazing decade in space, these are humanity’s top achievements - Ars Technica

This image may provide a clue to our top space mission of the decade.
Enlarge / This image may provide a clue to our top space mission of the decade.

As we approach the end of the 2010s, it's been fun to contemplate the coolest, most daring, and most significant feats of spaceflight during the last decade. Such an exercise leads inexorably to a simple conclusion—humans from around the world have done a lot of amazing things in space over the last 10 years.

For simplicity's sake, I had originally hoped to write about the five most important missions. But soon, I realized that this was far too limiting. Truthfully, even picking 10 of the biggest and best accomplishments during the last decade has proven incredibly challenging. We've had to leave out some really awesome things on this list, not to mention ultimately cheating (as this list goes to 11). It was so hard. If you read through the "honorable mentions" at the end of this list, there are literally dozens of incredible space feats. It makes me feel better about our species.

This is a subjective list, of course. I asked my followers on Twitter for suggestions on the "coolest" or "most exciting" or "best" space missions this decade and got 175 replies. I spoke with several NASA and academic leaders for their input and got plenty more insight. But at the end of the day, this is my list of the things that I'd rank as the most inspiring and significant achievements. Address your hate mail accordingly.

11. Soyuz MS-10 abort

In October 2018, a Soyuz spacecraft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying two humans, Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague. A "bent" sensor on one of the rocket's four boosters that failed to properly signal stage separation, and this caused one of the booster stages to improperly separate from the rocket. This booster then struck the core of the rocket, causing a significant jolt and triggering one of the Soyuz spacecraft's automatic escape systems. 

Astronaut Nick Hague, right, and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, left, embrace their families after landing in Baikonur, Kazakhstan in October, 2018.
Astronaut Nick Hague, right, and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, left, embrace their families after landing in Baikonur, Kazakhstan in October, 2018.

Fortunately, the hardy Soyuz capsule's escape system worked as intended. This is notable, because launch escape systems are rarely, if ever, tested on the actual flight vehicles ahead of missions. But in times of emergency, they are absolutely critical to the saving of human lives. In this case, the abort system triggered automatically, subjecting Ovchinin and Hague to a brief period of high gravity before they returned to Earth in a parabolic arc. This was a hugely dramatic moment in human spaceflight this decade. It's a testament to both the hardiness of the Russian crewed spacecraft design and the apparently declining reliability of the country's aerospace manufacturing processes.

Both astronauts launched successfully into orbit on March 2019.

10. Rocket Lab and the rest

As it turns out, building a rocket from scratch is difficult. Just one private company succeeded in flying a new small satellite launcher during the 2010s—Rocket Lab. After an initial test flight failed to reach orbit in 2017, the company has rattled off nine consecutive successful launches from its New Zealand spaceport. By the end of 2019, Rocket Lab was launching at a cadence of one mission about every month and a half. In fact, of US-based companies, Rocket Lab ranked second in total launches in 2019 with six—ahead of United Launch Alliance and only behind SpaceX.

One of the big space stories over the last five years has been the rise of dozens of new launch companies seeking to build rockets capable of launching between 100kg and 2 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. Many of these companies will fail—some, like Vector, already have—as the commercial and government market for dedicated launch can likely only support a few competitors. NASA has provided some modest support for these companies, but the majority of capital backing them has come from private investors.

Given that so many other companies are trying to make it in this market, Rocket Lab's rise has been remarkable, both from recognizing the potential market early (the company was founded in 2006, three years before SpaceX abandoned the Falcon 1 for the larger Falcon 9) and having the skills to develop a competent rocket and grow its business. In 2020, Rocket Lab plans to expand its launch operations to a second site at Wallops Island in Virginia and to continue working toward reusing its Electron first stages.

9. Parker Solar Probe

One senior NASA official wrote me to specifically say this mission absolutely needs to make the list. Deservedly so.

Launched in August, 2018, the probe broke the record for closest, controlled approach to the Sun in October 2018 when it passed within 42.7 million km of the Sun's surface.  At its closest approach in 2024, the probe is due to get within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun's surface. The Parker Solar Probe has also shattered the record for a spacecraft's velocity relative to the Sun, and it will eventually reach speeds of nearly 700,000 km/hour, or 0.064 percent the speed of light.

Earlier this month, scientists began reporting their first findings from observations made by the spacecraft, including new insights into the fundamental physics of the Sun's corona, and this should eventually allow for much improved predictions of space weather.

And the Parker Solar Probe had one other important first—NASA named it after a living scientist, Eugene Parker. The space agency took this extraordinary step due to Parker's persistence about his theories of the solar wind, which were initially widely dismissed by his fellow scientists. Now he gets to live to see a probe not only confirm his theories but provide troves of additional data.

8. Voyagers go into the great beyond

Never before had a spacecraft visited four worlds in a single, grand tour as the two Voyager probes did in the 1970s and 1980s with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Before the Voyagers launched in 1977, humans had been looking at fuzzy blobs in the outer Solar System for hundreds of years. Pioneer 10 and 11 provided some better views of Jupiter and Saturn, but still very little was known about the planets or their moons. Next to nothing was known of Uranus and Neptune. The Voyagers uncovered complex planetary systems and incredible moons, such as volcano-covered Io, icy Europa, and Titan with its methane seas.

But they didn't stop there. They continued to press onward and outward, eventually reaching the edge of the Solar System, where the Sun's energy stops directly affecting the environment. The Sun generates an enormous magnetic field that extends well beyond the planets and emits a stream of charged particles that stream out toward interstellar space. These influences are limited by the galaxy, which has its own magnetic field and an interstellar medium full of its own charged particles. At some point, distant from the Sun, these two influences collide: the Sun's influence weakens, and the galaxy takes over.

In 2012, Voyager 1 passed through this transition zone and beyond the Sun's influence. Voyager 2 joined its twin spacecraft in 2018, becoming the second human-built spacecraft to reach interplanetary space. Remarkably, both reported data back to Earth. Sadly, they are going to be the last two human-built spacecraft to cross this boundary for at least a quarter of a century.

7. Rise of women in space

Let's face it, the first decades of human spaceflight were heavily tilted toward men. But over the last 10 years women have taken significant steps toward catching up.

For example, during this decade, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson set the US record for most cumulative time in space, with more than 665 days on orbit (she still trails nine Russian male cosmonauts, but she's the only American astronaut in the top 15).

For the first time in 2013, half of NASA's new class of astronauts were women, and in 2018, the same could be said of a class of flight directors for the first time.  This year, in a sign of the increasing female presence on orbit, NASA conducted its first all-female spacewalk, when Jessica Meir and Christina Koch left the space station.

Overall, the aerospace industry remains more male than female, but women hold key leadership positions. The chief executive officers of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, Eileen Drake, are women. So, too, are key leaders at other companies, including SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and Boeing's Leanne Caret. And organizations such as the Brooke Owens Fellowship are working diligently to train a new generation of female leaders for the industry.

This decade also saw NASA led by its first two female deputy administrators—Lori Garver and Dava Newman. In the next decade, hopefully, the agency will get its first female administrator, and NASA will succeed in going back to the Moon, bringing the fairer sex to another world.

6. Kepler and the exoplanets

This was the decade of the exoplanet. Before 2010, fewer than 100 planets had been found around other stars. And astronomers had so many questions—Were exoplanets common? Did other Earth-sized worlds exist? Are Solar Systems common or rare?

Launched in March, 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope changed all of this. The instrument studied light coming from more than half a million stars over nine years to detect periodic dimmings in their brightness due to a transiting exoplanet. Scientists have since found more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets, with more than 600 planetary systems. Astronomers found that planetary systems around other stars come in an extraordinary variety of configurations, from large gas giants orbiting around their stars within a few days to clusters of small, rocky planets packed into tight orbits near their stars.

This is pretty astonishing and fundamental to understanding our place in the universe. Thanks to Kepler, we know that our galaxy teems with planets, at least as many as the billions of stars out there. This both increases the possibility that life may exist elsewhere and that, if one day we are capable of interstellar travel, there are many, many interesting places to go. The subsequent launches of NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (2018) and the European Space Agency's Cheops (2019) will only further our knowledge of exoplanets.

"Because of Kepler, what we think about our place in the universe has changed," Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters, said last year. And he is right.

5. Rosetta

Built by the European Space Agency, the Rosetta spacecraft launched in 2004 and required several gravitational assists from Earth and Mars to catch up with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It reached orbit around the 4km-wide comet in August, 2014, after traveling more than 8 billion km.

The mission is remarkable for a couple of reasons. It was the first spacecraft to make a controlled landing on a comet, although the mission's Philae lander was lost when its securing harpoons failed to fire after it reached the surface. Even after tumbling, the tiny lander still sent back valuable data.

The Rosetta mission was also memorable for the stunning, high quality of images it returned of the boot-shaped comet's rubble-strewn surface. We had never seen a comet like this before, so up-close and personal.

From a scientific standpoint, Rosetta confirmed that comets are remnants from when the Solar System formed, rather than fragments from later collisions. Comets therefore offer a window to 4.6 billion years ago. The program was a public relations success, too. It captured the world's attention, and we mourned its passing in 2016 after 12 years of service.

4. Falcon Heavy launch

It is not every day, or even year, that a brand new rocket takes flight. It is even more momentous when the new rocket also instantly becomes the most powerful rocket in the world. But that is what happened on February 6, 2018, when the Falcon Heavy rocket took flight for the first time.

The rocket's avionics system had to manage the flight of 27 engines at the same time, something which had not been done before. Watching it take off—slowly, very slowly—the mega-rocket began to climb away from the launch tower. Those 27 engines burned so brightly that, for a few seconds, staring at the rocket was akin to looking directly at the Sun. And yet we could not turn away.

Then there was the spectacle of the landing of the two side boosters, each a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, side by side not far from the launch site. This was something to behold. For hours afterwards, there were views of Starman in a cherry-red Tesla roadster floating away from Earth. It was hard to process everything in the moment.

The Falcon Heavy rocket has since launched twice more, making for three successful missions. The rocket has offered definitive proof that a private company can, independently, build a heavy-lift rocket without direct government oversight.

3. New Horizons

For those of us who grew up after the Voyagers sent home amazing images of the outer planets, we had never seen a major world in the Solar System revealed before our very eyes. But that is exactly what the New Horizons spacecraft did in July 2015 with Pluto—planet? Dwarf planet? Who cares, it's an amazing place.

The spacecraft's flyby of Pluto and its system of moons, including Charon, revealed a surprisingly diverse world with ice mountains, nitrogen ice flows, a ghostly atmosphere, and evidence of recent geological activity.

New Horizons is all the more significant in that the mission almost didn't happen, and it was canceled multiple times before finally launching in 2006 to meet a hard deadline. At a time when seemingly almost every major NASA project—the James Webb Space Telescope comes immediately to mind—faces long delays, the on-time launch of New Horizons seems all the more notable.

2. Curiosity

NASA had landed on Mars before. But the space agency had never landed a vehicle weighing nearly 1 metric ton on the red planet before, a mass far too heavy for the previously used parachutes and giant airbags solutions. John Holdren, the science adviser to President Obama, characterized Curiosity's landing  as "the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic exploration."

The space agency's engineers described the landing process as "seven minutes of terror," as they had seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars and to slow down from 13,000 miles an hour to zero. It required near perfect choreography. NASA invented a "sky crane" concept to use rocket powered engines to control its own rate of descent and lower Curiosity to the surface.

An artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.
An artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

And it all worked. On August 6, 2012, the seven minutes of terror passed with high drama, but without incident. Curiosity reached the surface. And the largest rover to ever travel across Mars has been trundling along since then providing a slew of data about a world that used to be a lot more like Earth. The success of Curiosity led to development of a similar rover for the Mars 2020 mission that will launch next year. The sky crane technique may also eventually enable scientists to put a rover down on other worlds in the Solar System, such as Jupiter's icy and intriguing moon Europa.

1. Reusable rockets

Some readers will no doubt argue with this choice, but from the standpoint of both "coolness" as well as long-term power to transform spaceflight, there is no question that mastering the art of launching a rocket vertically, and landing it nearby a few minutes later, was a supreme technical achievement.

SpaceX had been experimenting with reusing a rocket's first stage since the very first flight of its Falcon 1 rocket (it had a parachute tucked into the top of the first stage), but the company did not get serious about the concept until the Falcon 9 rocket began flying. After many failures, the first successful vertical landing occurred at the end of 2015. The first landing on an automated drone ship occurred in April 2016. (Seeing a rocket, just back from space, land on a small droneship in the middle of a wide ocean is the coolest spaceflight thing I have seen in my lifetime. It felt like the future had arrived).

How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.

NASA built the world's first reusable spacecraft in the 1970s, with the US space shuttle. The vehicle and its side-mounted boosters—but not the external fuel tank—were all reusable. But the refurbishment took months, and it required a standing army of technicians, engineers, and suppliers to make it all work. The shuttle was a technical masterpiece, but it was expensive as hell to fly, as much as $1.5 billion per mission by some estimates.

SpaceX seeks to go in a different direction with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which have entirely reusable first stages as well as, increasingly, payload fairings. The company has not released detailed estimates of what it costs to turn around a Falcon 9 first stage for reuse, but SpaceX has already changed the world's mindset toward reusable rockets with 47 successful landings and counting. Increasingly, it seems anachronistic and wasteful to throw your rocket away after a single launch. And for us, that is the transformation of the decade.

Honorable mention

So many of these feats also belonged in our top 10—err 11—that it is absolutely no shame to be among the honorable mentions. Looking back on the last 10 years, it has been an absolutely magical period of space exploration. If the 2010s are any indication of where the space industry is heading, we can't wait to see what happens during the 2020s!

  • Solar sailing becomes a thing with Ikaros (2010) and LightSail 2 (2019)
  • NASA launches Solar Dynamics Observatory (2010)
  • Spirit (2010) and Opportunity (2018) rovers go into the great, red twilight
  • NASA GRAIL mission to the Moon (2011)
  • Akatsuki Venus spacecraft is lost (2010) and then recovered (2011)
  • Messenger spacecraft goes to Mercury (2011)
  • Final flight of space shuttle, STS-135 (2011)
  • Dawn spacecraft visits Vesta (2011) and Ceres (2015) asteroids
  • SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft flies to the International Space Station (2012)
  • Orion's Exploration Flight Test-1 on Delta IV Heavy (2014)
  • New Shepard suborbital launch and first successful landing (2015)
  • China launches heavy lift booster Long March 5 (2016)
  • Juno launch launch (2011) and arrival at Jupiter (2016)
  • Bigelow expandable habitat arrives at International Space Station (2016)
  • Launch (2016) and arrival (2018) of OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Bennu
  • Cassini's final dive into Saturn (2017)
  • India launches its heaviest rocket to date, GSLV Mk3 (2017)
  • NASA's Insight spacecraft lands on Mars (2018)
  • Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft rendezvous with asteroid 162173 Ryugu (2018)
  • MarCOs become first interplanetary cubesats (2018)
  • Israel and India attempt Moon landings on public broadcasts (2019)
  • Chang'e 4 Chinese mission lands on the far side of the Moon (2019)
  • Launch of Deep Space Atomic Clock (2019)

We're sure we have missed some big accomplishments. And we're thankful that you're going to tell us about them in the comments below.

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2019-12-27 12:30:00Z

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