2016 was no doubt a great year for space discoveries. There were historical discoveries through 2016, including the Einstein-argued gravitational waves, which opened a whole new era of information-based research for cosmic scientists. In case you’ve forgotten some of these news-making findings, this article will refresh your memory.
First-ever gravitational waves discovered
In February last year, scientists using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration made history in physics when they made the first detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples that compress and stress space itself. More than 5 decades ago, renowned scientist Albert Einstein theorized that space and time are linked, and said that gravitational waves do pass via the cosmic fabric usually referred to as space-time.
This discovery, which was a major breakthrough, by all means, opens up an entirely new realm for cosmic study. Scientists can now gather information about various objects out there, as well as what events created them. There’s no other way to acquire this information. Last year, scientists made two detections (where the waves came from colliding black holes) that would otherwise have been invisible to them.
Proxima Centauri b (earth-like planet) found
4.2 light years away from our sun, there’s another star called the Proxima Centauri. This might seem like an eternity away but cosmologically speaking, it’s just a stone’s throw away. In August 2016, astronomers detected a planet orbiting through the habitable zone (where liquid water might exist) of Proxima Centauri. This planet (Proxima b) weighs about 1.27X earth’s mass, which increases the likelihood that it might be habitable.
Following this fascinating discovery, a group going by the name Project Blue started raising funds to build a telescope that could study Proxima b and explore signs of life there. A new organization known as the Breakthrough Foundation (including board members such as Stephen Hawking, Yuri Miller, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) launched an initiative dubbed the ‘Breakthrough Starshot’. Its goal is to see a microchip-sized spacecraft sent to another star. The first mission for such as spacecraft would be Proxima b. A powerful and expensive laser system would be used to propel this spacecraft to Proxima b, but it’d still need to travel for 20-25 years to reach the target planet.
“Welcome to Jupiter”
In July 2016, the Juno probe entered the orbit of Jupiter (largest planet in the solar system) and relayed the words ‘Welcome to Jupiter’ on screens at NASA headquarters, ushering in relief and celebration. Juno had launched in 2011 and only managed to enter Jupiter’s orbit after a tense half-hour descent last year. It will spend at least 14 months in Jupiter’s orbit, collecting important information and giving scientists’ insights into the planet’s core and atmosphere. Juno will be so close to the inhospitable environment characteristic of Jupiter that it’ll study the atmosphere and give massive insights into the origins of other planets in our solar system.
Ice deposits on Mars
Scientists discovered a massive ice deposit (actually the size of New Mexico) below Mar’s surface. This deposit is 50-85% water, and larger than Lake Superior in volume. That means there might be up to 12,000 cubic kilometers of water somewhere there on the Red Planet. If the human race was ever to settle on Mars, this ice deposit could be helpful.
New evidence for Planet 9
2016 has provided more compelling evidence about Planet 9, which is estimated to be about 10 times earth’s mass, and hiding somewhere far beyond Neptune. Researchers at California Institute of Technology employed computer simulations to illustrate the possibility of this unseen planet. This has led us close to seeing Planet 9. In fact, some scientists have predicted that we’ll be able to see it in 16 months.
2016 was definitely a great year to be a cosmonaut or space buff! By the look of things, 2017 will also likely be a space hit year. Already, the Akatsuki Orbiter operated by Japanese space scientists has discovered gravity waves on the surface of Venus. This is a rare phenomenon that has warmed up the year and elicited a raging discussion among top scientists. It’ll be interesting to see what more NASA and other top space centers can find.