Only 46,000 kilometres separated the Dawn spacecraft from its destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, when its German-built Framing Camera acquired the latest images on 19 February 2015. One of the most striking features of Ceres is the multitude of different crater shapes across its surface; in addition to numerous smaller, shallow craters, the images also reveal impact basins with large mountains located at their centres.
The final farewell; Georges Lemaître, the fifth and last European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) performed a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up at around 19:00 CET on 15 February. Its task had been to transport supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS) and to raise and adjust the International Space Station ISS orbit. The era of ATV space transporters has now drawn to a close with its retirement from service – but the expertise gained during their development and operation will live on as part of the European service module fitted to the United States Orion space capsule.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko could lose up to 20 metres of surface material from its previously unilluminated south side when it heats up, starting in May 2015. The increasing heat as the comet approaches the Sun will trigger this 'diet', during which gases and solid materials will be ejected into space.
Without water, there can be no life as we know it. This principle applies both to Earth and to other celestial bodies. Water that has been lying hidden under a thick sheet of ice for millions of years can tell us something about the origin and development of life. But if one wants to recover a sample of this water, care has to be taken that no microorganisms from the surface are introduced and that the sample and underwater habitat are not contaminated.
The Lander Control Center (LCC) at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is quiet. While the Philae lander is hibernating on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the control room team are able to take a break. Philae' s battery finally ran out at 01:36 CET on 15 November 2014, following a triple landing and more than 56 hours of scientific work.
Planetary scientists have never seen dwarf planet Ceres from this close up. The German-developed Framing Camera on board NASA's Dawn spacecraft acquired this image on 25 January 2015 from a distance of just 237,000 kilometres.
It is still early days for the scientists involved in evaluating data that the 21 instruments on board the Rosetta spacecraft and its Philae lander have transmitted back to Earth. But preliminary results from seven of the 11 instruments on the Rosetta orbiter have been published in a special edition of the journal Science.
BIROS, a microsatellite capable of detecting forest fires from space, will be launched in 2015. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) HALO atmospheric research aircraft will be flying through the Monsoon winds in the summer of 2015, investigating the effect of large-scale airflows on polluted air masses above India.
Planetary scientists at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) may find a thick ice crust with an ocean underneath when the NASA Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres in March 2015. Even now, from a distance of 383,000 kilometres, the first surface features are visible.
The Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) telescope at the Paranal Observatory, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, has achieved 'first light'.
It follows an elliptical orbit around Mars, undisturbed, almost lonely – the orbiter Mars Express. For 11 years now – to be precise since Christmas Eve 2003 – the first and, for some time now, European Space Agency longest-serving interplanetary mission has been travelling around our planetary neighbour.
Looking almost brand-new, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) set off from Hamburg, destined for its home base at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, at 13:16 CET on 14 December 2014 after its five and a half month visit.
With a diameter of nearly 1000 kilometres, it was the largest known asteroid – and yet Ceres, which was 'promoted' from asteroid to dwarf planet in 2006, is just nine pixels wide in the image acquired by the Dawn spacecraft on 1 December 2014.
Philae landed on a comet just three weeks ago; now, another German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) lander mission has been launched – the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) is already on its way to Asteroid 1999 JU3.
It takes almost three days to fly the 36,000 kilometres from Berlin to Wellington and back. On 28 November 2014, a laser beam covered a comparable distance in outer space for the first time – with the difference that it only took a few seconds to dispatch satellite images to Earth via a relay satellite.
Originally scheduled for launch at 05:24 CET on 30 November 2014, the MASCOT asteroid lander will now set off from Tanegashima Space Center on board the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) orbiter Hayabusa 2 no earlier than 1 December, destined for asteroid 1999 JU3.
Just three kilometres from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the ROsetta Lander Imaging System (ROLIS) acquired images of the 'head' and underlying 'body' of Comet 67P. Immediately below is the planned landing site, Agilkia; in the top right of the field of view, one of the landing gear feet can be seen as the camera on the underside of the lander approaches the comet's surface at walking pace.
A short but significant 'thud' was heard by the Cometary Acoustic Surface Sounding Experiment (CASSE) as Philae made its first touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The two-second recording from space is the very first of the contact between a man-made object with a comet upon landing.
The MUPUS instrument, one of 10 experiments on the Philae lander that touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko encountered very hard material with a temperature of about minus 170 degrees Celsius – probably rich in ice.
How long does it take for a star to be born? To date, only this much has been clear: longer than there have been humans on Earth with the technology to observe it. But the precise age of a star-forming cloud has now been determined by a team under the leadership of scientists at the University of Cologne using the GREAT spectrometer on board the SOFIA airborne observatory.