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Space gets busy as 2016 marks bumper year for exploration

Space gets busy as 2016 marks bumper year for exploration
By Robert Hackwill
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2016 was a year when space was open to everyone – from established space agencies to private entrepreneurs, they all aimed for the stars.

First, the launch which may actually make the most difference to our daily lives. In November four of Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites blasted into orbit on board an Ariane 5, taking the total number of satellites to 18 and signaling the start of services from the EU’s equivalent to GPS.

Meanwhile the private space startups were busy perfecting their re-usable rocket technology. Elon Musk’s Space X failed, tried again, and nailed it in April with a perfect touchdown of a rocket on a floating barge.

In Texas the space company Blue Origin launched successive New Shepard rockets, including a capsule escape test, complete with perfect touchdown by the main booster.

The firm founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos believes re-usable rockets can radically drive down the cost of access to space.

Another space entrepreneur, Richard Branson, watched his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity space plane make its first untethered flight and landing, another step towards making space tourism a reality.

Meanwhile we sent some spacecraft out to meet the neighbours in 2016, with Europe and Russia going to Mars, and the Americans to Jupiter.

There was drama in Darmstadt, Germany at ESA’s operations centre in October, as the Schiaparelli probe, which should have demonstrated that Europe can land on our neighbouring planet, crashed into the surface at 300km/h.

Much was learned during the descent, but what should have been a celebratory moment turned into disappointment

However ExoMars goes on, as the Trace Gas Orbiter went into orbit around the planet and began sending back scientific data, beginning the search for methane in the atmosphere, and furthering the hunt for life on Mars.

There were happier scenes at NASA as Juno entered orbit around Jupiter in July, although since then that spacecraft has also been prone to problems, and is now in a much longer orbit around the gas giant than scientists had hoped. However, it has sent back some unprecedented views of the planet that dominates our solar system.

Four hundred kilometres above our heads the International Space Station had another busy year as mankind’s main orbital research outpost.

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake came down from his stint in space, and French ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet went up for a six month stay, alongside astronaut colleagues from the US, Russia and Japan.

They were sent greetings in this video message from two Chinese taikonauts, temporary residents of China’s new space station this autumn. A new space power in the east is emerging.

However the mission that captured everyone’s imagination came to a close in September. Rosetta slowly and deliberately crashed into the comet it had been following since 2014, a bittersweet end of mission finale to a space adventure which has come to define mankind’s quest to dare to explore space, and share the adventure.

Finally our review of the year pays tribute to astronaut John Glenn, who died on December 8th aged 95. The first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962, he later went back into space on board the space shuttle, aged 77.