Strange space launches
This past year, engineers launched many oddities into space, including a Tesla Roadster, a gold-plated canopic jar and a cosmic disco ball. The total list of launched objects is lengthy, so here are the top 10 coolest objects (in our opinion) that blasted spaceward in 2018.
Space tourists (soon)
Virgin Galactic's spaceliner reached space, at least as defined by U.S. standards. Once the program is up and running, this spaceship — the VSS Unity suborbital spaceliner — will carry space tourists toward the heavens. There, they'll experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see Earth's curvature, all for $250,000 a ticket.
On Dec. 13, the VSS Unity reached 51.4 miles (82.8 km) over the Mojave Desert in California. While this is below the Karman line, it's above the 50-mile (80 km) boundary that the U.S. Air Force uses to award astronaut wings. [Read more about the VSS Unity]
In December, SpaceX launched a 24-karat-gold canopic jar in the shape of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., NASA's first African-American astronaut. For those who aren't ancient-Egypt buffs, a canopic jar is a container that holds a mummified person's organs.
In 1967, the U.S. Air Force chose Lawrence for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, which was designed to help the U.S. spy on the Soviet Union and other rivals. But Lawrence died in a jet crash less than six months later, meaning the 32-year-old never made it to space.
To honor Lawrence, SpaceX shot his gold bust, along with more than 60 tiny satellites, into space atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket. [Read more about Lawrence's canopic jar]
SpaceX also shot about 36,000 tiny worms into space. The wriggly load left Earth on Dec. 5 and landed at the International Space Station, where astronauts are now studying the C. elegans worms. These worms have similar muscle structures to those of people, so analyzing the critters can help scientists understand why and how astronauts lose muscle mass in space. [Read more about the space worms]
When the Syfy show "The Expanse" was canceled, its fans rallied to save it. To raise awareness, they launched a model of the Rocinante (nicknamed Roci), a spaceship from the series. The Roci model was attached to a balloon that lifted the ship up to nearly 110,700 feet (33,732 meters) above sea level.
That's below the Karman line, which, at 62 miles (100 kilometers), is used to define the start of outer space in space treaties. But the Roci model still reached great heights. You can see the video on this Reddit thread. [Read more about the effort to save "The Expanse"]
In February, SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket, lofting the craft from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This powerful rocket carried the ultimate payload: a cherry-red Tesla Roadster that had a mannequin dubbed Starman behind the wheel. Starman and the Tesla are now in an elliptical orbit around the sun, and they recently passed beyond the outer bounds of Mars. [Read more about the Tesla Roadster's journey]
Cosmic disco ball
Got an urge to dance some disco? This past year, you had the opportunity to do it under the cosmic disco ball, which was launched into orbit on Jan. 21 by the U.S. company Rocket Lab.
The 3-foot-long (1 m) reflective ball's official name is the Humanity Star, and it was created to reflect the sun's rays and serve as "a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe," said Peter Beck, the founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab.
However, just like the 1970s, the cosmic disco ball is now dead. It fell back into Earth's atmosphere in March. [Read more about the humanity star]
The days of space junk are limited, at least if the space net takes off. In September, the European RemoveDebris mission used a net to snare a piece of space junk. Actually, the "junk" was a small cubesat, but it was a good target for the demonstration.
In early 2019, RemoveDebris will use a pen-size harpoon to pierce and seize space junk. [Read more about the space trash collector]
On May 5, NASA launched the Mars InSight, a rover that uses a seismometer (SEIS) to measure "marsquakes" and gather more information about the Red Planet's geology. After zooming through space for months, InSight landed on Nov. 26. [Read more about InSight's landing]
The same December mission that launched the canopic jar also carried up a piece of shining artwork. The masterpiece, called "Orbital Reflector," is by Trevor Paglen, who created the artwork in collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art. The Orbital Reflector is made out of a Mylar-like material that can reflect light. Stargazers will be able to see the 100-foot-long (30 m) balloon for the next few months before it falls and burns up in Earth's atmosphere. (The orbital reflector doesn't have a tracking number yet, but check here for updates.) [Read more about the Orbital Reflector]
Chinese space station
As an honorary mention, here's an oddity that fell out of space this past year. In March, China's first space station, Tiangong-1 (which means "heavenly place"), fell back to Earth in a fiery streak. China knew that Tiangong-1 was heading Earthward, but scientists weren't exactly sure where it would land during its uncontrolled entry.
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Tiangong-1 crashed into the south Pacific Ocean near American Samoa. [Read more about Tiangong-1's descent]