It has been an amazing year and as always the Universe continues to amaze us with its ever so mysterious and mind-blowing Nature. Now, being a week into 2019 let us take a sneak peek into last year’s highlights in the field of astronomy and what it can mean for our species in the years ahead.
1. Super Blood, Blue Moon
The year 2018 started off with an amazing spectacle offered by our very own neighbour and companion, the Moon. On January 31, 2018, there was a super blood, blue moon that was visible throughout many asian countries. Or put it simply, it was a lunar eclipse!! But not just any lunar eclipse. Those tags super, blood and blue are not there for nothing. A blood moon as the name suggests is a phenomenon when the moon appears deep red in colour. This mostly occurs during a lunar eclipse when the Earth’s shadow blocks sunlight to reach the lunar surface which otherwise has a white glow. A blue moon on the other hand is the second full moon in a month. Although images may show it appearing in a deep blue colour, that is very rare. A super moon is a phenomenon when the Moon comes slightly closer to Earth than normal. This makes it look bigger in the sky. So this eclipse which occurred back in January of last year was a mix of all 3 phenomenon, all occurring at the same time. Pretty cool right??
The year 2018 started off with an amazing spectacle offered by our very own neighbour and companion, the Moon. On January 31 2018, there was a super blood, blue moon that was visible throughout many asian countries. Or put it simply, it was a lunar eclipse!! But not just any lunar eclipse. Those tags blood and blue are not there for nothing. A blood moon as the name suggests is a phenomenon when the moon appears deep red in colour. This mostly occurs during a lunar eclipse when the Earth’s shadow blocks sunlight to reach the lunar surface which otherwise has a white glow. A blue moon on the other hand is the second full moon in a month. Although images may show it appearing in a deep blue colour, that is very rare. So this eclipse which occurred back in January of last year was a mix of all 3 phenomenon. Pretty cool right??
2. The Tesla Roadster
Over the past few years SpaceX, a private space research organisation founded by Elon Musk has been the talk of the town. From its promises to send people to Mars by 2022 to setting up an interplanetary transportation network throughout our Solar System, SpaceX seems to be good candidate when it comes to future of humanity in space. However in February of last year, Elon Musk pulled up a very peculiar act by sending his own Tesla Roadster into space!! That is right, there is a car orbiting the Sun as you read this!! Whats more?? The car also had a driver. No, it was not a live human but a prototype spacesuit designed by SpaceX for future space missions. Dubbed as Starman this dummy along with its vehicle was launched into space as a trial payload for the Falcon Heavy test launch. Now Starman “drives” through the cosmos by orbiting the Sun at a distance roughly between Mars and Earth.
3. The Death of a Legend.
The science community lay in shock as March arrived due to death of one of the greatest scientists of all times. On March 14, 2018 Dr Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76 as he succumbed to his motor neurone disease, leaving behind timeless legacy. His contributions to the field of astrophysics were phenomenal and one of the biggest since the time of Einstein. His main goal as every other astrophysicist was to search for the Theory of Everything that could explain every phenomenon in the known Universe. His bestseller, The Brief History of Time did an amazing job in explaining the essentials of this theory and what it can mean for science in the future. His works continue to be a stepping stone towards this illusive theory as scientists continue with their efforts to answer the biggest questions that have troubled humanity since antiquity. On a side note, Stephen Hawking died on the same day Einstein was born. Plus 14 March is also called Pi day as it can be written as 3.14 in MM-DD format!! Now that’s interesting.
4. Icarus: The farthest star discovered
Space is a big place and that sentence does not give justice to how big space really is. However our friend Icarus showed us the true extent of what the Universe extends to. In April of 2018, scientists discovered a star, formally called MACS J1149 Lensed Star 1. Also known as Icarus, this star made a new record for the farthest star known. At a whopping distance of 14 billion light years, this discovery changed our notions about the size of the Universe and its past. The star was discovered by using a method known as gravitational lensing which is a product of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Put it simply, massive bodies in space like galaxies bend light due to their high gravity. This creates a lensing effect which brightens up far away objects thus providing a whole new field of galaxies and stars including Icarus to explore. You can read more about this discovery here.
5. NASA sets out to touch the Sun
We have always been told to never look at the Sun for obvious reasons but mischievous NASA decided to take a step further and sent a probe to touch the Sun!! Yes, in August last year, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe which is essentially going to do just that; touch the Sun. All the previous missions to explore our star have been ones where the spacecraft orbited it at a safe distance, and I am talking rarely closer than Mercury. However now that is going to change as the Parker Probe is going to fly within 4 million kms above the solar surface. Now that may seem like a lot but trust me, we are flying through the Sun’s atmosphere. The main aim of this mission is to study solar wind, measure electromagnetic fields in the region and take photographs of the ever-changing solar surface. This will better help scientists understand solar dynamics. This is very important as various solar events such as solar storms have the potential to wipe out all life on Earth and hence predicting such a catastrophe is a skill we must have.
6. The End of Kepler
No one other than the scientists working in space organisations, understand the grief when one of the missions they launch, operates for decades and then finally comes to an end due to depletion of fuel. In 2017 it was Cassini and this year it was the Kepler Space Telescope. The Kepler mission was primarily designed to search for exoplanets in the constellation of Cygnus, Lyra and Draco. An exoplanet is basically a planet that orbits another star other than the Sun. Over the course of its 9 year mission, Kepler discovered 2662 planets, many of them which are good candidates for alien life. Thus it was a sad moment on October of 2018 when NASA said a final goodbye to the telescope and deactivated it as its fuel supply ran out. However the discoveries due to the mission could have great impact on future planets humanity could settle on. The previously held notion that the Sun was the only star with planets is now long gone. Who knows?? One those planets may hold alien life.
7. An Insight on Mars
The Red Planet is the topmost place in the bucket list of NASA astronauts and it won’t come of any surprise that NASA is already sending missions to the Martian surface to know more about the details of the planet. On 26 November, 2018 NASA’s InSight mission made its successful touchdown on the Martian surface. Initially planned to be launched in March of 2016, a failure in the seismometer which was the main part of the mission delayed and pushed this date to May 2018. The probe’s main mission was to place the seismometer on Mars to measures seismic activity, study the heat flow, make 3D models of the planet’s interior and gather “insight” (pun intended) on how terrestrial worlds like Mars formed. The probe succeeded in its mission later in December by placing the device and started taking observations.
8. Welcome to Bennu
One of the major apocalyptic events that we humans fear is an asteroid collision with Earth. Although there are no potential dangers in the near future, the asteroid Bennu does have a narrow chance of striking Earth in the 22nd century. But guess what, NASA sent a mission there. The OSIRIS-REx mission, which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, launched in 2016, completed its 2 year journey to the asteroid on 3 December 2018. Now, the probe will continue to orbit the asteroid and survey it for a good landing site until the mid 2020s, after which it will land on its surface to take some samples of rocks. Then the probe will journey back to Earth and arrive by the year 2023. There is still long way to go before NASA can finally say, “Mission accomplished”.
9. The Spectacle of Comet Wirtanen
Last year began with a cosmic spectacle and also ended with one. As the year came to an end, a visitor from the farther reaches of the Solar System came by to say hi. Comet 46P/Wirtanen is a short period comet with an orbital period of 5.4 years and was discovered by Carl A Wirtanen back in 1948. However on December 16 it came closest to the Earth it had ever been in centuries and the closest it will be for centuries. At its closest approach it was about 30 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon which might seem quite a distance but then you know space is big, right? The comet was visible by the naked eye for a few days until it continued on its eternal journey into the darkness of the void.
With that the year came to an end to the beginning of the new year 2019. As always humanity’s quest to understand the very nature of reality continues and the new year does bring with it many promises. Space continues to be the final frontier.
Happy New Year!!