Every year there are always some spacey news to keep earthlings looking up and wondering about our Universe. Here are some 2016 highlights that are truly out-of-this-world:
EXOMARS—is the European Space Agency’s multi-step Mars missions to orbit and land on the Red Planet. Designed to locate methane and other gases important to biology in the atmosphere and surface, the orbiter, named Trace Gas Orbiter, has been working since October 2016. A piggy-back spacecraft, Schiaparelli, crashed when attempting a soft landing, which may affect plans for an ExoMars rover in 2020.
SEARCH FOR PLANET #9—And, no, it’s not Pluto, which is still a “dwarf planet,” albeit one of the most active worlds in the Solar System. Astronomers began thinking in 2016 that a huge, Neptune-size planet is responsible for the clumping of several groups of Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto. Six small (200 miles wide?) objects that are around 6 billion miles from the Sun cross the same invisible point in our Solar System’s plane—something like a 1 in 7,000 chance of that happening! Computer simulations predict a huge 9th planet maybe 10 billion miles away, and astronomers are looking for it. They even have an unofficial name, “Niku.”
WHERE’S THE MILKY WAY?—An awareness of the disappearing starlight from our own backyards was focused upon in 2016 in the astronomers’ battle against light pollution. Only one per cent of the American population lives in night skies completely free of artificial light (compared to 90 percent 100 years ago!). Maybe half the population can never see the starry arm of our Galaxy from their backyard. And with 83 per cent of night in the United States under artificial light (up from 66 per cent in 2001), whole ecosystems of the animal kingdom are being disrupted as hunting and mating habits are being compromised. The solution? The International Dark-Sky Association is the advocates for the world in battling light pollution. They promote lighting the night properly, with downward facing, eco-friendly and cost efficient fixtures. And the IDA is all about education and an awareness of the financial waste, hoping communities begin to take back the night not just for stargazers, but also for the world of nocturnal creatures.
JUNO at JUPITER—Another NASA spacecraft has made the interplanetary journey to the gigantic planet, large it can contain every other planet and Solar System object inside its globe. On July 4, 2016, Juno arrived at a man-made object speed record of 130,000 mph to begin a close, polar orbit to investigate Jupiter’s lethal magnetic field and space environment. A spinning metallic-hydrogen core creates the strongest magnetic field next only to the Sun’s. That creates a lot of invisible, radiation havoc, and its influence on the Jupiter system of ropy rings and 60-plus moons is part of Juno’s mission. The spacecraft will be deorbited and sent to burn up in Jupiter’s cloud deck in late 2018.
INTELLIGENT STAR STRUCTURE—One word that perks up Joe and Jane American’s eyes skyward is “aliens!” And the hottest alien fantasy of 2016 was the announcement that a distant star, KIC 8462852, was acting like no star ever studied. Instead of a predictable rhythm of its changing light (caused by events like another eclipsing star or a transfer of star material between double stars), “Tabby’s Star” has dipped in brightness quickly by nearly 25 per cent, strange for the classification of the star. Because this star acts erratically and within no known standards, many an astro-nerd began conjuring up visions of an alien mega-structure circling this star 1,500 Light Years away. That means it would take that many years traveling at the speed of light (6 trillion mph) for a spaceship to reach either direction. Astronomers are crunching the numbers and ordering more observations to solve the mystery of “Tabby’s Star.”
EARTH-LIKE PLANET, OH, SO CLOSE—After a decade of technology leaps and data gathering in the search for planets orbiting other stars, one that might be like Earth was discovered orbiting the closest star in our night skies. Orbiting Proxima Centauri, 4.2 Light Years away, this “exoplanet” is slightly larger than Earth, has an atmosphere and possibly water. All this is known by observing the wobble of Proxima Centauri as the planet tugs it back and forth and spectra is taken as it passes in front of the parent star. It is an irony that the first exoplanet like Earth is orbiting the closet star. Though the Hubble Space Telescope cannot see “Proxima Centauri b,” it may be visualized as a tiny object by the next generation Webb Space Telescope when it is orbited hopefully in 2018.
PLUTO, FANTASTIC PLUTO—The last bytes of fabulous data from the July 2015 flyby of the most famous dwarf planet was received in October 2016. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent the last packets of info 5 billion miles to Earth as it continued on its way to January 2019 encounter with a 25-mile object another two billion miles beyond Pluto. Planetary scientists are amazed at the dynamic activity on Pluto, which has clouds in an atmosphere that may snow upon frozen nitrogen ice burgs floating on seas of other ices at minus -300 below zero. The famous former 9th planet has a much warmer interior than thought. And much more is to be learned as that New Horizon data is turned into hard facts that are revolutionizing our understanding of the Sun’s family.
STAR WARS SPACESHIPS ON THE RISE—Generations of space travelers from now might look at 2016 as a pivotal year when the concept of pinpoint landings by reusable rockets became a reality. Private space companies Orbital Services, Blue Origin and SpaceX have made great strides to create the 1950s Buck Rogers image of spaceships taking off and landing at will. Contracts with NASA for supply ships to the International Space Station have been the centerpiece of independent space agencies. But with heavy risk. Indeed one unmanned Orbital Services supply ship was lost when the rocket blew up. But four times Elon Musk’s Space X rocket launched a satellite and had its first stage return and land erect twice on an ocean platform and twice on land. Steady pressure by a handful of private space companies will eventually put humans in orbit—and possibly boost space tourism.
NERD STUFF THAT EXPLORES THE UNIVERSE—Every year has many surprises that come from astrophysicists and astronomers comparing notes and discovering things they never expected. This year it was some of the highest energy particles, called gamma rays, ever observed coming from a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And then there are “gravity waves,” predicted by Einstein physics 100 years ago and finally confirmed in February 2016. Two complex science instruments in Louisiana and Washington detected the waves in the space/time from two merging black holes. Both the high energy gamma ray and the gravity wave revelations are built upon years of data and the historical laws of physics.
In 2016, these breakthroughs are new ways we understand our Universe—which seems to always create more questions about who we are and how we got here.