Every year incredible observations, discoveries and unexpected surprises occur in the world of science and astronomy. Here’s a list of some of our favourites!
10. Supermoon, supermoon and supermoon!
We said farewell to the last few months of 2016 with three supermoons. Due to its elliptical orbit, the perigee side of the Moon is about 50,000 kilometres closer to Earth than the apogee side. Syzergy is the scientific name for when the Earth, Sun and Moon line up and when perigee-syzergy (Scrabble word alert!) of the Earth, Sun and Moon occur and the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun – a supermoon occurs!
This coincidence occurred three times in 2016. In October and December, the Moon became full on the same day as perigee. In November, it became full within two hours of perigee making it the biggest supermoon in almost 70 years. Although the weather wasn’t cooperative on the night of this main event, it still deserves a spot in our top 10! Check out images from around the globe of the night here.
9. SOFIA made exciting discoveries in NZ
Late 2016, observations of the collapse of portions of six interstellar clouds were made aboard NASA’s SOFIA. These clouds were on their way to becoming new stars much larger than the Sun. The observations helped SOFIA scientists confirm their theoretical models about the formation of stars from such collapses. Despite being based in California; the SOFIA team operates from Christchurch several weeks each year to study objects best observed from southern latitudes. This includes the complete centre of the Milky Way where many star-forming regions are located. The direct connection to New Zealand makes the amazing research being carried out by SOFIA even more exciting.
8. New planet?!
Astronomers announced that there might be a massive undiscovered planet, dubbed ‘Planet Nine’ or ‘Planet X’, orbiting the Sun in our Solar System’s distant regions. The orbits of six small Kuiper Belt objects have been observed which when using a computer model, led astronomers to hypothesise the existence of Planet Nine. This isn’t the first time the orbits of astronomical objects have led to the discovery of a planet – an observed discrepancy in the orbit of Uranus led to Neptune’s discovery in 1846. To date, Planet Nine is yet to be officially be detected or discovered, but rather is an early prediction based on modelling from limited observations. Keep a close eye on this coming year for any new developments.
7. Philae said goodbye
After an epic 12-year journey, the Philae Lander finally said goodbye. The washing machine-sized craft and its mothership Rosetta launched in 2004 and travelled some 6.5 billion km before entering Comet 67P’s orbit in 2014. However, when Rosetta sent the craft down to the comet, Philae failed to fire into 67P’s surface, bounced several times and ended up in a ditch shadowed from the Sun’s battery-replenishing rays.
It did manage to send home about three days’ worth of experiments and valuable data before entering standby mode. But after eight intermittent communications, the lander fell permanently silent in 2015. July 2016, ESA decided it was time to say goodbye, to save energy for Rosetta in its final few weeks of orbiting the comet. The goodbye came with sadness, however in September – less than a month before Rosetta’s planned sign off – it’s high-resolution camera revealed Philae wedged into a dark crack of the comet! The images finally provided proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communication was so difficult back in 2014. The remarkable discovery in the mission’s final hours came as wonderful news. We will miss you Philae and Rosetta!
6. Tim Peake Returned
UK astronaut Tim Peake completed a historic six-month stay aboard the International Space Station and safely returned to Earth on June 16th aboard the Soyuz capsule. His 186-day mission took him on about 3,000 orbits of Earth, covering a distance of almost 125 million kilometres. Despite the trip being cut short due to a leak in his fellow crew member’s helmet, Major Peake became the first Briton to complete a spacewalk in January.
He participated in the Brit Awards in February, presenting singer Adele with her Global Success award, ran a virtual reality version of the London Marathon while secured to a treadmill and remotely steered a rover back on Earth!
Major Peake also participated in a programme of experiments in medical science, radiation physics and materials. He raced towards Earth at 25 times the speed of sound during his return and described it as “the best ride I’ve ever been on.”
5. SpaceX landed on a barge
After four failed attempts, the private spaceflight company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket booster on a barge positioned off the Florida coast in April 2016. This is the second such landing of a Falcon 9 from the company. However, the first success was a Falcon 9 booster landing on a pad on solid ground, making this barge landing even that much more an impressive feat of engineering. The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo ship which made its way further on to the International Space Station carrying crew supplies, station hardware and science experiments. Keep up to date with what’s next for SpaceX here.
4. Europa surprise!
The Hubble Space Telescope made an exciting discovery in September by imaging what appears to be water vapour plumes erupting from the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa’s ocean is considered a potential location that may harbour life in our Solar System. This finding increased the possibility that future missions to Europa may be able to sample its ocean and search for signs of life without having to drill through miles of ice. 2018 will see the infrared vision of James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) being used to confirm the plume activity.
3. One Year Mission came to an end
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly finished up his ‘One-Year Mission’ and ‘Twins study’ after his year in space – the longest ever stay aboard the ISS. Kelly, along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko conducted investigations into the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges faced during long-duration space flight.
Scott’s twin brother Mark, also an astronaut, participated in the same mission – however, he was land-based! NASA monitored Scott’s health throughout his stay and upon his return began comparison studies between the two brothers to distinguish the effects that the zero gravity, atmosphere and confined living quarters have had on Scott’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Check out the documentary series by TIME of Scott’s journey here.
2. Discovery of Earth 2.0
In the ever-continuing search for another Earth, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed they have clear evidence of a potentially Earth-like planet located just 4.2 light-years from our Solar System. The planet, dubbed ‘Proxima b’ orbits the star Proxima Centauri. In 2013, astronomers detected a wobble in the star but needed more evidence to confirm the existence of a planet. 2016 helped reveal that Proxima b did, in fact, exist with a mass of at least 1.3 times that of Earth and completes an orbit around Proxima Centauri every 11.2 Earth days – indicating it could be tidally locked, as the Moon is to Earth. Future projects with the European Extremely Large Telescope and the James Webb Telescope give scientists chances to learn more about this other ‘Earth’ in the coming years.
1. Juno Begun Unlocking Jupiter’s Secrets!
The top story has to go to the big arrival of the year – Juno! The beloved spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit in July ending a nearly five-year journey through deep space and becoming the farthest solar-powered spacecraft in history and the first mission to enter the planet’s orbit since NASA’s 1995 Galileo mission. The plan of the mission is for Juno to perform about 30 orbits around Jupiter’s poles studying the planet’s magnetic and gravitational fields in detail, measuring the amount of water in its atmosphere and trying to determine whether or not certain elements lie beneath its clouds. The mission team are hoping this information will reveal more about the planet, and subsequently our Solar System’s origins. Since its arrival, Juno has had several flybys taking incredible images of the planet and capturing the sounds of its auroras. The mission is expected to continue until Juno’s 39th orbit in 2018. Keep up to date with its discoveries here.
You can also ride with Juno at any time, and see where it is, using NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System programme here.