Monday, January 2, 2017

2016: the year in space and astronomy by Alan Duffy and Rebecca Allen

The achievements of astrophysicists this year were as groundbreaking as they were varied. From reuniting a lander with a mothership on a comet, to seeing the most extreme cosmic events with gravitational waves, 2016 was truly out of this world for science. Here are some of the highlights of the year that was.

1. Gravitational Waves
The spectacular announcement that ripples in the very fabric of spacetime itself had been found (and from surprisingly massive black holes colliding) sent similarly massive ripples through the scientific community. The discovery was made using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and represents a fundamentally new sense with which to see the universe.

The gravitational waves cause one arm of the LIGO detector to stretch relative to the other by less than a thousandth of the width of a proton in the centre of the atom. Relatively speaking, that’s like measuring a hair’s-width change in the distance to the nearest star.

This discovery was the end of a century-long quest to prove Einstein’s final prediction that these gravitational waves are real. It also allows us to directly “see” that famously and fundamentally invisible entity: the black hole (as well as definitively proving its existence). The fact that the two black holes collided 1.3 billion years ago and the waves swept through Earth just days after turning the detector on only add to the incredible story of this discovery.

2. SpaceX lands (and crashes) a rocket
The year started so well for SpaceX with the incredible achievement of sending a satellite into orbit, which is no mean feat itself at such low cost, before then landing that launch rocket on a barge in the ocean. A seemingly unstoppable sequence of launches and landings made it appear that a new era of vastly cheaper access to space through rockets that could be refuelled and reused was at hand.
Add to that the visionary plans to settle Mars outlined by Elon Musk, albeit not without some audacious challenges, and it’s been a year of highs and lows for SpaceX.

3. Closest star may harbour Earth-like world
Proxima Centauri is our Sun’s nearest neighbour at just over four light years away, and it appears that its solar system may contain an Earth-like world. Until this year, astronomers weren’t even sure that any planets orbited the star, let alone ones that might harbour the best extrasolar candidate for life that spacecraft could visit within our lifetime… read more: