It's been a good year for science with all sorts of awe-inspiring, beautiful, or weird discoveries. But not every story survived the followup. Here's the space science stories that fell apart under scrutiny, faded on reconsideration, or didn't make sense from the start.
Image credit: Steffen Richter/Harvard University
Gravitational Waves Continue To Elude Detection
Image credit: Image credit: BICEP2
After a big lead-up, excitement, and a physics press conference that melted servers as so many people tried to stream it simultaneously, we thought we'd finally detected gravitational waves as evidence of early inflation from the Big Bang. After peer-review and more extensive analysis, it looks like the results were actually an artifact of dust. This doesn't disprove the Big Bang, it just means we haven't (yet) found that particular piece of evidence. Awesomely, we learned so much from this adventure that it also made our list of biggest scientific breakthroughs for 2014.
Andromeda Didn't Have A Gamma Ray Burst (Yet)
Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler/Erin Grand
The Swift Telescope reported an anomalous X-ray event, which got astronomers on social media excited about a potential gamma ray burst in the galaxy next door. A poorly-timed thunderstorm knocked out a server, preventing updates or confirmation. By morning, it was discovered that all the fuss was over a programming bug, a known X-ray source paired with an mis-counted luminosity triggering an alert. ...although I still maintain that it would be really, really cool if we did get to watch a gamma ray burst from close enough to be interesting, yet far enough away to not murder us.
Yellowstone Failed To Erupt And Kill Us All
Image credit: Ben Grogan
Always a popular target for conspiracy theorists and doomsday scenarios, the caldera in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming made news for a traffic jam of bison and again a few months later for melty roads. In neither case was this an indicator of impending doom, and the super volcano utterly failed to erupt. Unsurprisingly, this is entirely in keeping with what the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory was saying all along.
A Blinky Light On Mars Is Decidedly Unexciting
Image credit: NASA/Phil Plait
This beautiful landscape from the Curiosity rover on Mars has an unusual feature: a small, single-pixel light visible from only one of its two cameras. After an alien-lifeforms-are-signalling0us!! kerfuffle, we wrote it off as a cosmic ray smacking the camera. While plausible, that wasn't quite right either: a NASA imaging scientist thinks that it was probably a light leak, or possibly a very shiny rock.
NASA Failed To Break The Laws Of Physics (Twice)
Image credit: Mark Rademaker
NASA made the news twice this year for incredible breakthroughs in rocket propulsion systems. Alas, both stories were massively overhyped, the result of the scientific version of concept art somehow escaping into the news cycle. The first was an updated design for a very, very sexy warp ship based on science that's a long way off from actually existing. The other was a conference paper puzzling over a thruster that functioned even when turned off that managed to transform into a functioning "physics defying" prototype as it made its way through the news circuit. Unfairly, NASA already has an entry lined up for the 2015 version of this list with the hoax Zero-G Day that they didn't even perpetuate in the first place! Poor NASA: Why do stories they don't even promote keep getting so wildly out of control?
Our Solar System Isn't Going To Get Trashed By Planet X
Image credit: NASA
While it sounds hilarious to report on a null result as part of the year-in-review, the null result here is pretty definitive proof that extinction events aren't linked to a rogue star or planet. After a very thorough full-sky survey, NASA has found absolutely no evidence of a gas giant or wandering star nuzzling up to our solar system and waiting to be discovered. I'd apologize to Planet X doomsday theorists for crushing their dreams, but I'm sure they'll find something else to latch onto, like this orange dwarf that may stop by for a visit in a quarter of a million years.
Heavily-Hyped Rocket Launches Get Scrubbed (Sorta)
Image credit: Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider
This entry is a bit of a cheat: twice we had big build-ups to launches that were scrubbed, but they either eventually made it into orbit or have a new launch window early in the new year. The first test flight for the Orion deep space explorer was delayed by gusting winds and a sticky valve until the original launch window expired. The second attempt was far more successful, blasting off at the next opportunity. In commercial space flight, the SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable rocket was preparing to make the first-ever attempt at soft landing on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean, only to have the much-delayed launch scrubbed and pushed back to January. Although SpaceX is quoting the odds of initial success at 50%, they have a whole lot of launches lined up to try throughout 2015 so here's hoping the that Reusable becomes more than a naming strategy next year!
Female And Male Hurricanes Are Equally Deadly
Image credit: NASA
In a perfect demonstration of how misleading statistics can be if you aren't extremely careful, a story came out that female hurricanes were more deadly than male hurricanes. However, the dataset reached back into history when hurricanes were both more deadly and only carried female names, which renders all subsequent analysis flawed. Take this as a reminder to be careful with your statistics: garbage in will inevitably produce garbage out.
An "Earth-Like" Planet Isn't Much Like Earth (or Livable)
Image credit: NASA
In the explosion of exoplanets discoveries, it was inevitable we'd start finding rocky planets in the habitable zone. Soon, the phrase "Earth-like" was getting bandied about for Gliese (or GJ) 832c, an exoplanet just 16 light-years away. While the discovery was real, the scientific definition of "Earth-like" didn't exactly line up with popular representation. Within the definition, Venus is even more habitable than Gliese 832c, which isn't going to make colonists happy.
That's it for our year in space science that didn't live up to the headlines. Did you run into any stories that didn't meet your expectations? Chime in with your contributions along with links to the rest of the story! Afraid you'll accidentally spread stories that later get discredited? Try using this Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention to guide your sharing.