Best Space Stories of the Week — Feb. 21, 2016
Virgin Galactic's new SpaceShipTwo space plane, the VSS Unity, was unveiled to the public on Feb. 19, 2016.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic revealed a brand-new SpaceShipTwo, NASA revealed geology maps of Pluto, and Stephen Hawking revealed he's really excited about gravitational waves. Here are's top space stories of the week.

A brand-new SpaceShipTwo

The private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic unveiled and christened the second iteration of its suborbital space plane, SpaceShipTwo, this week. Dubbed "Unity," the vehicle could take civilian passengers on suborbital flights as early as 2017, company representatives have said. [Full Story: Virgin Galactic Unveils New SpaceShipTwo 'Unity' for Space Tourists]

New NASA telescope gets the go-ahead

NASA has decided to pursue construction of a new space-based telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The mission has been under consideration for some time, and will study dark matter, dark energy, planets around other suns and the evolution of the universe. [Full Story: NASA Will Build Repurposed Spy Telescope for Wide-Sky Survey]

SpaceX makes perfect water landing

The SpaceX Dragon capsule, which will one day ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, landed in the ocean during a recent parachute test. Video of the water landing shows Dragon's parachutes opening as planned. [Full Story: Parachutes Pop Open Perfectly in SpaceX Test]

Deep in the heart of Pluto

NASA scientists recently released a geological map of the heart-shaped feature on Pluto's surface (unofficially called Sputnik Planum). The highly detailed map has color coded over two dozen features on the surface, such as "rough upland plains," "rough lowland plains," "lightly pitted plains" and "deeply pitted plains." [Full Story: NASA Maps Geology of Pluto's 'Heart']

Cygnus cargo ship meets fiery doom

A Cygnus cargo ship left the International Space Station on Feb. 19 and, as planned, journeyed down through Earth's atmosphere, eventually burning up over the Pacific Ocean. The space station crew had spent the previous few days filling the Cygnus craft with trash. [Full Story: Private Cygnus Cargo Ship Leaves Space Station to Meet Fiery Doom]

Don't forget the black holes!

On Feb. 11, scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves (ripples in space-time) in history. Here's what scientists learned about the pair of black holes that caused the ripples. [Full Story: Black Holes, Too! Gravitational Wave Find Had Other Surprises]

Hawking weighs in on massive discovery

British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking was quick to voice his excitement at the announcement that scientists had directly detected, for the first time, ripples in space-time. He discussed the significance of the discovery to astrophysics and Einstein's theory of general relativity. [Full Story: Hawking: Gravitational Waves Could Revolutionize Astronomy]

Mapping Mars

A mapping company called Ordnance Survey has made a map of the surface of Mars. Done in a beautiful, classic style, the map uses changes in color to show the changes in terrain height on the Martian surface, and identifies large features on the Red Planet, such as the Sagan and Masursky craters. [Full Story: Watney Would Approve: Ordnance Survey Maps Mars]

Where do asteroids go to die?

New research suggests asteroids in Earth's solar system do not meet their demise when they crash into the sun, as was previously thought. Instead, these objects linger in the depths of space and slowly break apart, and are "dead" long before they fall into the sun. [Full Story: Asteroid Murder Mystery Solved]

What's in the air of a super-Earth?

A planet about twice as wide and eight times as massive as Earth has an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, but no water vapor, researchers said. The planet, 55 Cancri e, is a highly studied exoplanet that is much too hot to host life. [Full Story: Super-Earth Exoplanet's Atmosphere Characterized for 1st Time (Video)]

The last man on the moon

A documentary film about the life of Gene Cernan, the last person to set foot on the moon, features rare archival footage and a look at the experiences Cernan had as a NASA astronaut in the 1960s and '70s. The film is available on iTunes, and opened in select theatres on Feb. 26. [Full Story: 'The Last Man on the Moon' Delivers Rare Archive Footage | Trailer]

A year in the life of the sun

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is snapping photos of the sun multiple times per day. Strung together (and sped up), the images provide a look at the sun's changing surface over the course of one year. In addition, using just 23 images, SDO released a single, compiled image of the sun over one year. [Full Story: Our Fierce Sun: 12 Months of Explosive Activity (Video)]

Earth-studying satellite launched

Europe's Sentinel-3A Earth observation satellite launched into low-Earth orbit last Tuesday (Feb. 16). The satellite will monitor ocean wave height, sea and land temperature, and sea-ice area and thickness. It will also contribute to weather forecasting. [Full Story: Europe's Sentinel-3A Earth Observation Satellite Successfully Launched]

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