Astronomy Rewind 2020
Looking back at the busy year, through the lens of astronomy. From mysterious monoliths to crewed spaceflights, 2020 in a nutshell.
To rewind means to replay the reel. Was 2020 a year to relive? Most of us certainly don’t want to. Despite things being pretty disheartening on Earth, the world of astronomy and astrophysics seems to have had a good year, overall. From making a clean sweep of the Nobel Prize in Physics, to the world’s first private spacecraft docking with the ISS, read on to Rewind 2020 and see what space has in store for you.
Crewed flights and Starlink — SpaceX’s year in Space
On a Falcon 9 rocket, at 3:22 p.m. EDT May 30, the Crew Dragon accelerated its two passengers (Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley) to approximately 17,000 mph to reach the International Space Station. Solar Panels are mounted into the body of the Crew Dragon to power the operation.
The spacecraft is designed to take care of the operations (docking and rendezvous) autonomously by SpaceX. Still, the astronauts will be monitoring the processes to take care if any exception arises.
Elon Musk, the visionary founder of SpaceX, said “I’m quite overcome with emotion. It’s been 18 years working towards this goal, so it’s hard to believe that it’s happened.” after the success of the launch.
Following the first mission’s successful launch, a second spacecraft named “Resilience” was launched by SpaceX on November 15, at 7.27 P.M. Eastern Time. There were four astronauts on board, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover ( first African-American taking part in a long-duration mission on the ISS), Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi.
SpaceX’s Dragon is the world’s first private spacecraft taking humans to ISS and the only spacecraft that can bring some cargo back to Earth.
SpaceX Flight launches in 2020 -
SpaceX launched an overall of 26 missions in 2020 breaking its record of 21 missions in 2018. It also marked its 100th successful space mission.
Its overall launch includes 14 Starlink missions carrying about 60 satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). It has launched more than 900 satellites to orbit at present, which is criticised for its impact on night-sky observations by astronomers and space debris risk.
SpaceX also launched
- Dragon CRS-20/21 — Cargo ReSupply mission(CRS) delivers more than 4,300 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware to the orbital laboratory.
- GPS Block III/IV — Designed by Lockheed Martin for Navstar Global Positioning System which will provide three times better accuracy and eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities.
- SAOCOM 1B — Earth observation satellite to support disaster management, earthquakes, Volcanic activities etc.
- Sentinel-6A — It measures the sea surface height measures because of climate change using Radar altimetry launched by ESA.
The Sun has set on Arecibo Observatory, silencing an engineering marvel that revolutionised astronomy for nearly six decades. Built-in 1963, this iconic radio telescope radically transformed how we observe the cosmos, ruling the skies with its 1000 feet wide radio dish. Surpassing its life expectancy of 50 years, the telescope had weathered tropical storms, earthquakes, and many other calamities that struck the town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
The unique skywatcher
Arecibo Observatory (AO) has been one of the most productive, sensitive, and longest-running sky watching operations for over 57 years.
“Arecibo was unique in several ways,” says Donald Campbell, a former director of AO.
With a dish 305 meters across, it could see very faint objects and phenomena. Unlike most radio telescopes, it could transmit radio waves and record the reflected signals that came back contained information about the cosmic target such as size, shape, and motion. It has helped pioneering work in exploring many phenomena, such as ice in the permanently shadowed craters at Mercury’s poles, cataloguing the features of many near-Earth asteroids. The first indirect evidence of gravitational waves from a pulsar orbiting another star, observed in 1974 using this telescope, went on to win the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics. In 1974, it beamed the most potent signal ever sent from Earth, consisted of 1,679 bits of information (as shown); to communicate with aliens.
Weathering tropical and financial storms
However, due to lack of funding and interest, the observatory was devoid of repairs due to natural calamities. After the earthquakes and storms shattered the structures, a supporting cable broke and left a 100-foot-long gash on the dish in August. Then in early November, another main cable supporting the equipment platform also snapped. By this, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to decommission and carry out controlled demolition of the observatory, considering staff and scientists’ safety. On December 1, the 900-ton hanging platform in the centre crashed the panels, falling about 450 feet. A video capturing the catastrophic collapse also has been released.
Scientists for years to come will analyse the collected data of the observatory. The groups are now refocusing their efforts on getting help from the US Congress to rebuild the telescope. For now, NSF is recommending that portions of the observatory remain intact and that the site can still be used for educational purposes.
The sky brought mystic beauty!
Jupiter Saturn Conjecture — The ‘Planetdom’
As the curtain was brought down for the year 2020, astrophile had some spectacular sight to behold on the night of December 21 — winter solstice of 2020. People witnessed Jupiter and Saturn — the two colossal bodies of the Solar System for ‘a get-together’ in the southwestern sky. This was a rare celestial event as the “great conjunction” which occurred in July 1623 was impossible for humans to see because it was so close to the sun and it’s been nearly 800 years since Jupiter and Saturn’s alignment occurred at night. So this time, we can see it happen.
Jupiter and Saturn are in conjunction every 19.85 Earth-years. Since Jupiter takes 11.86 years to orbit the Sun and Saturn takes 29.4 years, every 19.85 years they appear to pass each other in the night sky. But what was witnessed this time during a ‘great conjunction’ is Jupiter catching-up on, and over-taking, slower-moving Saturn.
When Jupiter overtook Saturn at the end of 2020, they were around 1º apart. Conjunction this close won’t occur anytime until 2080.
Annular Solar Eclipse
On 21st June 2020 — the summer solstice, we witnessed the annular solar eclipse or termed as ‘The Ring of Fire’ with the Sun appearing as a necklace of pearls (Bailey’s beads). This was considered a super rare hybrid eclipse, a blend of a perfect annular and total solar eclipse.
At the Greatest Eclipse location, in Uttrakhand, India, near the border of China and Nepal, the eclipse’s magnitude was 0.996, the highest magnitude (0.99401) at the instant of Greatest Eclipse among all the annular solar eclipses between 2003 and 2031. The next annular solar eclipse with a higher magnitude is on September 12, 2034. The next time an annular solar eclipse coincides with the June solstice in this century is on June 21, 2039.
Year of Samples — Chang’e and Bennu
China’s Chang’e mission to the moon
On November 23rd China’s Chang’e-5 blasted off towards the moon from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch site on Hainan Island hoping to make China only the third country to obtain samples returned from the Moon after the United States and the Soviet Union. It returned to Earth on 16th December 2020. The mission’s success also marked the return of fresh lunar samples to Earth in more than four decades.
Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e, the mission aimed to collect lunar samples from the near side and send them to Earth, after the previous Chang’e missions accomplished the task of reaching the lunar orbit, landing and roving. Hence, the program aims to facilitate a crewed lunar landing in the 2030s and possibly build an outpost near the lunar south pole.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that the new samples would be shared with the UN and international partners for space research purpose. Planetary scientists in the west are taking a keen interest in Chang’e 5 and the Chinese lunar programme.
OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu
Bennu, a remnant from the solar system’s dawn, is a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group. It is the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx successfully touched down on the surface of Bennu, collected a sample using an extendable arm, secured the sample and prepared for a return trip to Earth.
The asteroid is a dark, miniature world, roughly the size of a skyscraper has now become the smallest object to be orbited by a spacecraft. But among the hundreds of thousands in our solar system, why was Bennu chosen? The primary constraint for selection was its proximity to Earth since proximity implies low impulse (Δv) required to reach an Earth orbit object.
Arriving after a two-year journey, OSIRIS-REx had discovered spectroscopic evidence for hydrated minerals on the surface of the asteroid, implying that liquid water was present in Bennu’s parent body before it split off. After several stages of the mission, it began its descent to the surface at the centimetres’ speed per second (slower than the walking speed of insects!). Using the laser altimetry data, NASA could take a tour of the terrain. Finally, after a year of mapping Bennu’s surface, a target site was announced. Named Nightingale, the area near Bennu’s north pole, lies inside a small crater within an enormous crater.
After departing from Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex will return to Earth in late 2023 with the new material from the early solar system. Although it is small in size, Bennu has proved to be a fascinating world, abundant in geographic features that have defied our expectations.
COSMOLOGY RULED NOBEL PRIZE AGAIN!
In the last two consecutive years, the Nobel prize committee has recognised major milestones in astronomy. In 2019, scientists were awarded a Nobel prize for laying the foundations for modern cosmology, understanding the evolution of the Universe and discovering the exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.
And this year, the Nobel Prize was for the discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the Universe, the black hole.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences conferred the Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 to Roger Penrose for “The discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for “The discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”
It is the first Nobel Prize given for the acknowledgement of black holes and their unmistakable existence. During the past decades, the concept of black holes was nothing more than a mathematical aberration. The historic feat of capturing the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 (M87) and its shadow using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), couldn’t have become a reality without the contribution of these Nobel laureates and other scientists in this field.
Roger Penrose proved that black holes could form as the consequence of Albert Einstein’s general relativity theory. He came up with a set of mathematical tools and introduced the mathematical notion of “trapped surfaces” to pinpoint an event horizon.
Genzel and Ghez used the world’s largest telescopes to see through to the Milky Way’s centre. Stretching the limits of technology, they built unique instruments using adaptive optics, which uses lasers to correct for blurriness caused when light travels through Earth’s atmosphere. To conclude to that level of precision, each independently led teams that spent more than a decade following the path of S02, the star orbiting around Sagittarius A* and concluded the presence of a supermassive black hole.
And Andrea Ghez, the fourth woman ever awarded in physics, has become a visible role model and inspiration to next-generation girls out there to pursue STEM and research as a career.
Here’s hoping for more future discoveries and inventions in the field of cosmology!
Perseverance — another Mars resident
Mars has captivated our focus ever since we humans started looking the night sky. There have been numerous satellite missions to the red planet since the ’60s. Continuing the exploration, in 2020, we saw a few mars missions launched towards the planet. Mars 2020 mission is one of them. Launched on 30th of July, the rover is scheduled to make a landing on 18th of February 2021.
Perseverance, in every regard, is a technological advancement to its predecessor Curiosity. The rover’s size is about that of a car, about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide, and 2.2 meters tall. It weighs a little over a ton kilogram. Apart from cameras, radar and environmental analysers, Perseverance carries a few new instruments: MOXIE or Mars Oxygen ISRU (in Situ Resource Utilization) Experiment and Ingenuity.
MOXIE will manufacture oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars. If this technology demonstration is successful, the cost and fuel consumption will reduce substantially for future human missions. Another instrument that perseverance carries is Ingenuity, the first-ever helicopter to fly on Mars. It will be used to plot driving routes for Perseverance. If this works as expected, NASA can build on the design for future mars missions. Another exciting part of the mission is that this mission is the planned first step in bringing back rock and soil samples from the red planet to analyse them in the earth.
Perseverance will be an essential mission in mars exploration history, and it will lay the vital groundwork to land humans on the neighbouring world.
The curious case of the “Missing Monoliths.”
“Both the man of science and the man of the art live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it, both always struggle to make it partial order in total chaos.” - J.Robert Oppenheimer
2020 didn’t bring in aliens, but it did bring astronomers closer to finding extraterrestrial life than ever before. Not only did these bizarre events just provoke our curiosity and attract the science fiction readers, but they also paved a path for a diverse set of people to earn from this piece of news. Many artists sold such similar artwork to many corporations for placing it in their gardens or other areas to attract the visitors, which eventually became great news for the content and meme creators. This chain continues and proves to be a viral marketing campaign.
Well, was it just to sell their artwork? Or to validate the concept of extraterrestrial life Or just to test the human’s nature to seek answers. It’s all maybes. Well, these maybes are essential.
So how did it all start?
It all started when the DPS’s Aero Bureau and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources went on a mission to count the number of bighorn sheep in a portion of southeastern Utah in the United States on Nov 18, 2020. They found this mysterious metal monolith in the middle of the desert, but it disappeared after four days leaving everyone baffled. The structure was three-sided, 12 feet high similar to the one in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Space Odyssey ‘’.
What’s fascinating is the fact that Utah’s monolith stood for years unnoticed and disappeared almost immediately after we knew about it. The mystery deepened when a similar monolith appeared thousands of miles away in Romania after this; to our surprise, it also disappeared. Following these two incidents, other monoliths have appeared in different parts of the world. The maybes still exist, and hence the mystery continues.
Of Aliens and UFO
Israeli Scientist saying Aliens Exist
The former head of Israel’s Defense Ministry Space Directorate, Haim Eshed, garnered everyone’s attention when he stated to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot during an interview, on how humans have been in contact extraterrestrials from a “Galatic Federation”.
He also stated that “The Unidentified Flying Objects have asked not to publish that they are here, humanity is not ready yet.”
Eshed said that aliens were also curious about humanity and wanted to understand “the fabric of the universe.” “They had been waiting until today for humanity to develop and reach a stage where we will understand, in general, what space and spaceships are” referring to the galactic federation.
Eshed also said that cooperation agreements had been signed between species, including an “underground base in the depths of Mars.” “There is an agreement between the US government and the aliens. They signed a contract to do experiments here,” he quipped in the interview. Eshed pointed out that President Donald Trump was aware of the extraterrestrials’ existence and was “on the verge of revealing,” but was asked not to prevent “mass hysteria.”
Three declassified videos of “unidentified aerial phenomena” were released by the US Department of Defense in 2020. The Pentagon said that it wanted to clear up any misconception by the public whether or not the footage being circulated was real”.
The videos showed mid-air interactions with the military, which were leaked previously, were now declassified and shared online by the US Navy. The footage shows mysterious wingless aircraft travelling at hypersonic speed without any visible means of propulsion.
Eye candy of the year!
That was an eventful year! This is just a scratch on the surface, though. There’s a lot more going on in the world of astronomy and astrophysics and here are some snippets of news that will intrigue you.
If you had fun reading this Rewind, follow Nakshatra, NIT Trichy for more news and thoughts on the cosmos. Stay tuned!
This article was written by the team of Nakshatra NITT