I have always been fascinated by theoretical physics, the universe and of course all the theories on our origin. There have been plenty of awe-inspiring discoveries in this regard in the past ten years and what better way to conclude my blogs for 2019 by going through some of them.
Curiosity, part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission is the largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars. It was launched in November 2011 and 11 months later, landed on Aeolis Palus inside Gale on Mars. Curiosity and fellow rover Opportunity were set out to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support microbes? In 2013 Curiosity’s scientific tools found chemicals (Sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon) and mineral evidence of past habitable environments on Mars.
I remember many videos on the technological innovations that tested a completely new landing method for Curiosity. The spacecraft descended on a parachute, then during the final seconds before landing, the landing system fired rockets to allow it to hover while a tether lowered Curiosity to the surface. The rover landed on its wheels, the tether was cut, and the landing system flew off to crash-land a safe distance away.
NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope discovered some 2347 confirmed exoplanets since its launch in 2009. In December 2011, we confirmed the existence of Kepler-22b as the first exoplanet discovered to be in the Goldilocks zone. The ‘Goldilocks Zone,’ or habitable zone, is the range of distance for a planet from its sun, within which water can remain as liquid. In November 2013 – thanks to the data collected by Kepler – astronomers reported that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way galaxy alone!
Kepler’s nine-year mission concluded last year, and we said goodbye to it in Nov 2018.
An interesting article was published in the January 2019 edition of the Astronomical Journal; Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown provided mathematical evidence suggesting there may be a large object deep in our solar system. This hypothetical Neptune-sized planet orbits our Sun in a highly elongated orbit far beyond Pluto, taking between 10,000 to 20,000 years for one full orbit. Although this new planet has not yet been officially discovered, astronomers will begin using the world’s most powerful telescopes to search for the object in its predicted orbit.
Speaking of Pluto – sorry my dwarf planet – the planet will most likely not be named Planet 9. If found, the name must be approved by the International Astronomical Union and as per other planets, chances are it will be named after a mythological Roman God.
A visit to the most distant object
In January 2019, NASA’s interplanetary space probe, New Horizons, flew past a mysterious mountain-sized object 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth. The object which is a contact binary – two separate objects joined together- is the furthest object humanity has ever visited. It has been officially named Arrokoth, a Native American term meaning “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.
Getting and analysing the data from New Horizons will take about two years and will likely reveal new clues about our solar system’s evolution and how planets formed some 4.5 billion years ago.
Visits to the not so distant objects
In 2014, Scientists at the European Space Agency managed to land a space probe named Rosetta on a comet 600 million kilometres from Earth. Closer still, at only under 9 million kilometres from Earth, a Japanese spacecraft landed on the surface of an asteroid called Ryugu (meaning Dragon Palace, a magical underwater palace in a Japanese folktale) in July 2019.
Perhaps a question that comes to mind is, why? Scientists hope to learn how billions of years ago, asteroids like these may have seeded our planet with key ingredients for life.
Visit from afar
In the last few years, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts left our solar system. While we sent the two uninvited guests to interstellar space, we welcomed our first (first observed) interstellar object into our solar system. Affectionately named ‘Oumuamua’ – a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “the scout” – by the time we spotted the visitor, it was already making its way back out to the interstellar depths from which it came.
In 2018, two Harvard University scientists – Shmuel Bialy and Avi Loeb – suggested that Oumuamua could be a “light-sail” created by an alien civilisation. In a statement about the research, Loeb said that it is “unclear whether ‘Oumuamua might be defunct technological debris of equipment that is not operational any more or whether it is functional”. However, in July 2019, astronomers analysed the claims and much to the disappointment of many, concluded that Oumuamua is somehow like both a comet and an asteroid, but certainly not an alien spacecraft.
First Image of a black hole
In April, the Event Horizon Telescope team published the first-ever image of a black hole. “Working for well over a decade to achieve the feat, the team improved upon an existing radio astronomy technique for high-resolution imaging and used it to detect the silhouette of a black hole – outlined by the glowing gas that surrounds its event horizon, the precipice beyond which light cannot escape.”
The M87 black hole is one of the largest known supermassive black holes and is located at the centre of the gargantuan elliptical galaxy Messier 87, or M87, 53 million light-years (512 quintillion kilometres) away and contains 6.5 billion solar masses. Why is it important? According to NASA “Learning about mysterious structures in the universe provides insight into physics and allows us to test observation methods and theories, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Massive objects deform spacetime in their vicinity, and although the theory of general relativity has directly been proven accurate for smaller-mass objects, such as Earth and the Sun, the theory has not yet been directly proven for black holes and other regions containing dense matter.”
Read more about this here
Also check out this video that shows where M87 is;
I am sure our crazy scientists at NASA, ESA, LHC and universities around the world will come up with further exciting new discoveries, but for us mere mortals a fun holidays’ activity could be building a Rover. For those wishing to build their own Mars Rover, JPL has open-sourced their design.