Life on the surface of planet Earth in 2020 was troubling, to say the least, but above and beyond this rock lies a whole lot of outer space where quite a few interesting and exciting things took place.
While humanity hunkered down to wait out theand endured a steady stream of economic, political, environmental and social strife, SpaceX, NASA and a host of others were sending all kinds of stuff to space, including astronauts.
In late May, NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken became the first humans to lift offfrom US soil in almost a decade when they to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 mission. The fully modern spacecraft, complete with touchscreens, was also the first new vehicle certified by NASA for transporting astronauts since the space shuttle was introduced almost four decades ago.
The mission was technically a demonstration, but its success was followed in November by the first operational Crew Dragon flight
, carrying four astronauts to the ISS.
Robotic space explorers also had a busy year. July represented the best time to set a course for Mars for the next few years, so NASA took advantage of the opportunity, sending the Perseverance rover on its way to the red planet, where it will look for signs of potential life and also deploy a tiny helicopter to explore a little further afield. The UAE launched its Hope probe toward Mars, and China’s Tianwen-1 is carrying an orbiter, lander and rover in the same direction.
In addition to new missions heading to space as emissaries from a world in lockdown, a few older ones brought samples to us from beyond Earth. Japan’sit had collected after shooting a special copper bullet at the asteroid Ryugu. A capsule carrying the resulting dust and pebbles landed in Australia in December, after which the sample was transported to Japan.
NASA accosted an asteroid as well this year when theperformed a sort of cosmic pickpocketing of the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu. That sample is expected to make it to Earth in 2023.
China’ssnagged its own space swag by launching, landing on the moon, collecting a sample and returning some lunar rocks and soil, all over the course of less than a month in November and December.
These missions were all set in motion years ago and saw success in 2020. Others were stymied by the pandemic.
The launch of NASA’s next-generationyet again, to 2021. Commercial space companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin continued to make progress, but didn’t manage to start sending tourists on microgravity joyrides just yet.
OneWeb, which aims to provide broadband access from low Earth orbit, felt the bite of the economic recession and filed for bankruptcy as the pandemic was going global.in the second half of the year with the British government as new part owner and resumed launching satellites to catch up to SpaceX, which has already .
SpaceX and Elon Musk set more milestones in 2020 beyond achieving human spaceflight and deploying hundreds of orbiting routers. The company launched 26 Falcon 9 rockets, a few of which have now made seven flights each. On the side, its latest, which ended with a spectacular and explosive hard landing.
Not to be forgotten,, the dummy piloting Musk’s red Telsa since being blasted off atop Falcon Heavy in early 2018, this year finally made a close pass by Mars.
Eyes on the skies
When humans and our robots weren’t actually traveling to space, we were plenty busy keeping an eye on it with far more fervor than we could muster for yet another Zoom meeting or webinar.
It’s hard to believe that at the start of 2020, theand the possibility it might go supernova made our list of things to be concerned about. It later turned out that Betelgeuse is doing just fine — and was easily forgotten as we turned our attention to sanitizing groceries and searching the planet for toilet paper.
But while our dreaded and much derided new normal dragged on, the heavens became a popular distraction as Comet Neowise delivered the goods
in July, making itself visible even to naked-eye skywatchers in a display that was the best in decades. such as the Perseids, Taurids and Leonids also impressed in 2020. Lucky folks in parts of Africa and Asia had the opportunity to take in a “ring of fire” solar eclipse in June, and others, in a relatively small slice of South America, got a glimpse of a in December.
2020 Perseid meteor shower photos shine bright in a dark year
But perhaps the biggest display was thethat made itself easily visible for the first time in eight centuries to close out the year. The two largest planets in the solar system appeared as nearly conjoined twins for a night, and even amateurs with basic backyard telescopes could make out Saturn’s rings and several moons of the gas giants.
Peeping at planets
Professional astronomers peered into deep space as they always do, and made more exciting discoveries. They spotted evidence of, and our other next-door neighbor, Venus, made a surprising move up in the rankings of worlds worth searching for signs of life.
In what has since become a controversial claim, a team of, a by-product of living organisms, in the surprisingly pleasant cloud decks above the uninhabitable hellscape that is the surface of Venus.
Astronomers continued to show that our galaxy and the realms beyond are, including some . There also looks to be a , Proxima Centauri. New for 2020 was the normalization of and even making such discoveries.
In true 2020 style, however, it wasn’t all charismatic comets and newfound Earth cousins. In an awesome but sort of disturbing reminder of the violence present in the universe, scientists captured the process of a distant black hole absolutely eviscerating a star
that got too close through a slightly comic but mostly terrifying .
Yes, Virginia, this universe has no problem turning you into pasta and eating you for lunch.
And on a truly sad note, December began with some wild footage of Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo radio observatory collapsing. For decades, the huge dish in the jungle helped us better understand and explore the universe.
Sorry to end on a downer. It just seems appropriate for the year we’ve had. But space as seen through the eyes of astronauts, scientists and just plain fans like me remains one of the brightest silver linings of a year that most would otherwise hope to forget.
I wouldn’t dare tempt fate by saying 2021 will be even better, but I will note that the next meteor shower is already here, with the Quadrantids set to peak on Jan. 2, while February will see.
Keep looking forward and skyward, and Happy New Year.