Top Astronomy News Stories of 2020 – Sky & Telescope

This has been a 12 months rocked by a world pandemic that has left its mark on almost each facet of society. Wildfires, social unrest, and loss have solely added to our sense of wrestle. Yet it has additionally been a 12 months of celestial wonders, astronomical discoveries, and area successes. We look again at 13 of the largest tales this 12 months.

Pandemic Side Effects: Shutdowns and Telescope Sales

We can’t discuss 2020 with out that includes the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected astronomy because it did every thing else. Telescopes worldwide shuttered their domes, some briefly — like these on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i — and others for longer time periods. The SOFIA airborne observatory was grounded for several months but is now flying once again. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, however, won’t come again on-line till 2021.

Michele Brusa / S&T Online Photo GalleryOn the similar time, the isolation and downtime enforced by the pandemic enabled many to delve deeper into their fascination and keenness for the night time sky, as evidenced by an unprecedented surge in telescope gross sales. Everything from newbie scopes to superior astrophotography tools continues to fly off the cabinets.

Historic Sight: Jupiter and Saturn’s Great Conjunction

Robert Vanderbei / S&T Online Photo GalleryThese new telescopes should have turn out to be useful for the Great Conjunction of 2020, the assembly of Jupiter and Saturn within the sky, separated by simply 0.1° (properly, that and 724 million km). This is the closest the 2 have come within the sky since 1623, and even that pairing was fairly near the Sun; no observational data exist. Telescopes are actually extra widespread than within the 17th century, so many noticed each large planets by a single eyepiece — a shocking view!

The Collapse of Arecibo

The most heartbreaking astronomical loss of 2020 was the collapse of the Arecibo 305-meter (1,000-foot) radio telescope. The huge dish, featured within the movies Contact and GoldenEye, performed an actual and very important function in planetary protection and in neighborhood inspiration in Puerto Rico. When a cable snapped in August, engineers thought the 57-year-previous telescope may very well be repaired. Replacement cables had been on order when a second cable snapped in November and introduced these hopes to an finish. The subsequent collapse of the suspended receiver platform ended even the prospect for a managed dismantling.

Nevertheless, Arecibo Observatory shouldn’t be closing. Its a lot smaller 12-meter radio dish and the LIDAR amenities used to research Earth’s environment will proceed operations, and wanted repairs are in progress.

A Bounty of Sample Returns

Meanwhile, ongoing area missions have carried on whilst floor-primarily based groups operated in altered circumstances. As a outcome, we noticed a triad of profitable sampling missions.

This picture reveals the second the pattern-gathering arm contacted Bennu. NASAIt began in October with NASA’s OSIRIS-REX mission, which efficiently collected and stowed an overabundance of regolith from asteroid 101955 Bennu. That pattern arrives again on Earth in 2023. Then China launched its formidable Chang’e 5 mission, which returned bearing items of the Moon inside a month. And simply earlier than Chang’e 5’s capsule got here again, so too did the pattern-return from Hayabusa 2. That mission’s capsule carried grains and fuel from asteroid 162173 Ryugu.

Gravitational-wave Astronomy Goes Big

This graphic reveals the lots of black holes detected by electromagnetic observations (purple), black holes measured by gravitational-wave observations (blue), neutron stars measured with electromagnetic observations (yellow), and neutron stars detected by gravitational waves (orange). GW190521 is highlighted within the center of the graphic because the merger of two black holes that produced a remnant that’s the most large black gap noticed but in gravitational waves.
LIGO-Virgo / Northwestern U. / Frank Elavsky & Aaron GellerThe LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave collaborations have launched their latest catalog of mergers, together with one collision between neutron stars and a bevy of black gap cataclysms. Some of the outcomes got here out piecemeal all year long, together with probably the most large merger but and a gathering of mismatched black holes. Perhaps most importantly, the catalog as an entire factors to a inhabitants of black holes much more large than we had anticipated, with implications for star formation and black gap evolution.

The “Fainting” of Betelgeuse

This comparability picture reveals the star Betelgeuse earlier than and after its unprecedented dimming. The observations, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January and December 2019, present how a lot the star has pale and the way its obvious form has modified.ESO / M. Montargès et al.Everyone’s favourite pink supergiant threw a tantrum early on this 12 months. Such stars should not steady, and Betelgeuse has common cycles of brightening and fading. But in December 2019, it started dimming an unprecedented quantity, waning to a magnitude of 1.6 earlier than lastly turning issues round in February. The mysterious habits nonetheless has astronomers scratching their heads. They proceed to watch the star as they think about whether or not it dimmed resulting from a sudden outburst of materials or as a result of half of the star briefly cooled.

Faint Radio Bursts Revealed

An artist’s idea of a magnetar, a extremely magnetized neutron starNASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / S. WiessingerThe temporary however highly effective radio flashes generally known as quick radio bursts (FRBs) have been an enigma since their discovery in 2007. But this 12 months, astronomers noticed a sign attribute of FRBs coming from a magnetar — a particularly magnetized neutron star — inside our personal galaxy. That remark has utterly modified the sector. While there are mysteries nonetheless to be solved — resembling why some of them repeat whereas others seem to not — the galactic magnetar will assist present astronomers the best way.

Wildfires Threaten Observatories

Fire rages at Mount Wilson at night time, with the town of Los Angeles seen within the distance.
HPWREN / Mount Wilson ObservatoryUnprecedented wildfires engulfed the West Coast in late summer season and early fall this 12 months. In addition to the hazards that the hearth and smoke posed to human life, the wildfires additionally threatened historic observatories. Firefighters’ heroic efforts saved first Lick Observatory after which Mount Wilson Observatory from the flames.

The Hidden Hill Observatory, an novice facility run by the Tri-Valley Astronomers membership, was not so fortunate — it burned to the bottom. Nevertheless, hope stays: The neighborhood has chipped in in an enormous technique to donate funds and tools for rebuilding.

Comet NEOWISE: A Delight at Dawn and Dusk

Shakeel Anwar / S&T Online Photo GalleryIt’s been awhile since we’ve had a unadorned-eye comet, and amid troubling occasions, nature offered this previous summer season with Comet NEOWISE. First seen within the daybreak hours, then more and more increased within the nightfall hours, the comet drew viewers of all ages and skills. Binoculars drew out incredible element within the comet’s arcing tail. And photographers had great enjoyable framing the comet amongst metropolis lights, wild landscapes, or fields of stars. (See some of these views in our on-line Gallery.)

Phosphine on Venus!? Maybe . . .

This artist’s impression depicts Venus, the place scientists have confirmed the detection of phosphine molecules (inset). ESO / M. Kornmesser / L. Calçada & NASA / JPL / CaltechAstrobiology grabbed headlines in an enormous method this fall as astronomers introduced the detection of the molecule phosphine inside the environment of Venus. Phosphine could also be a microbe byproduct, if it’s not the leftovers of some sudden abiotic chemistry, and it turned half of web memes in a single day. However, additional examination of the info turned up issues with its calibration, and the sign ended up being downgraded from a bona fide detection to a promising trace. Verification awaits additional observations from the ALMA observatory, which ought to come again on-line this spring.

The Best View of Mars Until 2035

Damian PeachThe shiny apparition of Mars in our skies this fall impressed many of us to tug out our telescopes for an try and see the floor options of our neighbor planet. This opposition marked the brightest and largest look till September 2035. Meanwhile, area businesses within the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, and China took the chance of opposition to ship three missions to the Red Planet, named respectively Perseverance, Hope, and Tianwen 1 (“Heavenly Questions” in Chinese). The missions will arrive within the spring of 2021.

Black Hole Astronomers Win 2020 Nobel Prize

This simulation reveals the orbits of stars very near the supermassive black gap on the coronary heart of the Milky Way. ESO / L. Calçada / spaceengine.orgThree researchers — physics polymath Roger Penrose and astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez — have helped revolutionize our data of black holes, and this 12 months they obtained the Nobel Prize in Physics for his or her efforts. While Penrose demonstrated mathematically that black holes are inevitable and developed concepts essential to our understanding of how they work, Genzel and Ghez undertook many years of observations of the celebs orbiting the invisible four million-photo voltaic-mass behemoth within the heart of our galaxy. The stars’ motions present compelling proof of the black gap’s existence and likewise allow scientists to discover how gravity works in an excessive setting.

Galactic Archaeologists Dig Deeper

In this all-sky picture of the Milky Way as seen from Earth, the coloured rings present the approximate extent of the celebs that got here from the fossil galaxy generally known as Heracles. Danny Horta-Darrington (Liverpool John Moores University) / ESA / Gaia / SDSSThe European Space Agency’s Gaia mission launched its greatest Milky Way map but only a couple weeks in the past, enhancing the precision of stars’ coordinates, distances, and velocities. The earlier information launch already charted our galaxy’s motions and historical past, revealing its rotation and its previous collisions with different galaxies. The new information set will undoubtedly present a good deeper view of the Milky Way.

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