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AIPT Science presents: The biggest astronomical happenings of the decade

Planck, and black holes, and yes … ‘Oumuamua.

What a decade it’s been for astronomy and space! The Earth tied its all-time record for 10 full orbits around the Sun, long-term missions like New Horizons, Kepler, and Hubble produced years of results, and more photons than ever before poured into the CCDs of telescopes peering into the heavens.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been progress. Many ambitious projects are stalled for lack of funding (or other reasons), the U.S. currently has no means of conveyance into orbit for manned missions, and humankind’s scoreboard for “number of planets visited” remains stubbornly pegged at 1.5 for the fiftieth straight year (moons count for half).

So come along with us as we recount the celestial heights and cold soundless voids of the past decade in space, in a highly subjective and incomplete fashion.

2011

Last space shuttle flight

After 135 missions, the Space Shuttle program flew for the final time. The shuttle was used to deploy and repair instruments like the Hubble Observatory over the course of its 30-year run, and the U.S. still does not have a way to get its brave astro-men and -women into space (other than renting Russian space jalopies).

2012

Transit of Venus

From our perspective on Earth, Venus passes directly in front of the disk of the sun only twice every 120 years or so. These events, called transits, happen in pairs separated by eight years. 2012 was the second of one of these pairs — prior to 2004, the previous set was in 1874 and 1882.

In previous centuries, observing these events from different locations on Earth was used to measure the size of the solar system by triangulation. This time around it was just for show, but it was still pretty cool.

2013

Chelyabinsk meteor

 

There are a lot of car accident scams and corrupt cops in Russia, so basically everyone there has dashcams. Which comes in very handy when the bright fireball from a meteor burning up in the atmosphere happens over Russia, because it means we got to see dozens of videos of the blast.

The meteoroid itself was heavier than the Eiffel Tower, and the largest impact since the 1908 Tunguska explosion. About 1,500 people reported injuries (mostly from windows broken by the shockwave), but thankfully no one was killed.

Planck results

The ESA’s Planck mission mapped tiny variations in the temperature of light emitted shortly* after the Big Bang, when the universe still had that new car smell. Studying these variations, known as the “anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background,” allows scientists to find the age of the universe, its rate of expansion, and a bunch of other things about its contents. These results (which were further refined two years later) are the current cosmological benchmark.

*(if you call 380,000 years “shortly”… which you do, if you’re the universe)

2014

BICEP2 detects gravitational waves from the early universe — or maybe not

The BICEP experiment measured polarization in that cosmic microwave background signal. If certain theories of cosmic inflation are right, it ought to have created gravitational waves that would make a polarization signal in that relic radiation.

Initially, BICEP claimed they had observed such a signal, but it later came to light that the team had scraped a map of cosmic dust from the PDF of a conference talk to calibrate the sky’s dust pattern. That didn’t work, because it wasn’t really accurate enough for that kind of purpose, and the result didn’t hold up.

2015

New Horizons gets to Pluto

After flying through space for nine years, faster than any other man-made object ever, New Horizons streamed past the solar system’s most conspicuous former planet.

2016

Gravitational waves observed for real

Image: T. Pyle/LIGO

LIGO successfully observed the space-warping effects of two black holes spiraling into each other. Some of the energy from the collision was transported away from the scene of the incident in the form of ripples in spacetime, seen on Earth in the minuscule expansion and contraction of a couple of 4 km-long tubes filled with lasers.

2017

‘Oumuamua

The first discovery of an object foreign to our solar system was observed passing through it on a hyperbolic orbital trajectory. Additional observations seemed to indicate that it was approximately cigar-shaped and tumbling end over end … and that it was almost certainly not some kind of alien probe.

Solar eclipse

In August, a total solar eclipse swept through much of the contiguous United States. Skies grew dark at midday, animals panicked, and President Donald Trump boldly defied the small-minded busybodies of the astronomical and medical establishments by choosing to look directly at it.

2019

Direct image of a black hole

Radio astronomers observing the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy created the first detailed image of material heated as it falls into the massive gravity well. The image distinctly shows a central accretion disk tipped toward us, and a glowing halo surrounding the event horizon. Perhaps best of all, it looks exactly the way you would like a black hole to look.

Honorable Mentions

2012:  Contrary to John Cusack and a total misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar, the world does not end.

2017Felix Baumgartner jumps out of space at the behest of Red Bull ad execs.

2019:  Foreshadowing what is sure to be some kind of nervous breakdown, Elon Musk launches a car into space for some reason. Our parents got the Apollo mission, but I guess this is okay, too.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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