Review of the year 2021 in astronomy
In 2021, there were plenty of big space stories in the news, including two lunar eclipses in May and November. Coincidentally, two more total lunar eclipses will occur in May and November 2022. We were also entertained by three large meteor showers in January, August and December, but the moon caused major interference. The Northern Lights were prominent last month – especially in western Canada, painting the sky green.
The endless list of exoplanets continues to grow, with a total of 4,884 confirmed worlds and 8,288 other candidates. This research continues via terrestrial and space telescopes. So the next time you look at those twinkling points of light, you’ll be looking at the mini-solar systems of at least one planet orbiting its parent star. After all, the sun is just one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way.
It was around this time last year that Japan’s Hayabusa mission successfully returned soil samples from the Itokawa asteroid. The samples show that water and organic matter from the asteroid itself have evolved chemically over time. It has long been the idea of
astronomers and scientists that the building blocks of organic compounds needed to create life began in the solar system and were delivered to young earth via meteorites. Missions like this have shed new light on that theory. Meteorites and comets contain small amounts of water. Impacts over millions of years most likely provided water to the earth.
Comparable to the list of exoplanets, another 70 rogue planets have been detected floating in space. They are “outcasts” of their solar system, driven by an event such as the explosion of the star, thus launching it on a path to nowhere. Or some could have been overpowered by larger planets in their solar system and launched from there, away from the (possible) light and heat of their sun.
Until recently, the sun was studied by ground-based telescopes and orbiting satellites. The amount of information learned is exceptional, but the missing key was a physical examination. Never before had a spacecraft touched the sun until the launch of the Solar Parker Probe in 2018. Over the years, the craft performed multiple maneuvers as it approached the sun. In December 2021, the probe hit the upper atmosphere of the solar corona, which is only visible from Earth during a total solar eclipse when the moon blocks out blinding light. Over the next few years, the probe will approach our star, and by 2025 it will be racing at unprecedented speeds.
speed of 690,000 kilometers per hour, or 192 kilometers per second. Its 11.4 centimeter thick heat shield combines it to operate at around 29 degrees Celsius and not fry the electronics.
The newest addition to the Martian fleet came with the deployment of the SUV-sized Perseverance and Ingenuity helicopter anchored below. The small helicopter’s two blades rotate in opposite directions to help provide lift in the thin Martian atmosphere. To date, he has logged 30 minutes in a series of short flights. This is the first time that such a vehicle has been used on the red planet.
Private companies have proven they have the right hardware to get into space – not just NASA. Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin allowed 90-year-old William Shatner and retired National Football League (NFL) star Michael Strahan to touch space as they crossed the 100 Karman line. But Elon Musk took space travel one step further by ferrying astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station via SpaceX.
Freighter Dragon. It’s the same Dragon capsule that was almost used as an emergency escape vehicle. The International Space Station has been subjected to a dangerous debris field from a deliberately exploded satellite. The danger has all but passed, but there have been a few moments of anxiety.
Space is dangerous. In addition to solar radiation from the sun and cosmic rays from the cosmos, more than 23,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than a softball are tracked. Half a million pieces are the size of a marble or more, with around 100 million pieces of debris – around a millimeter and slightly more. All moving at 28,000 km/h, or nearly 8 km/sec.
In September 2022, the DART mission will arrive at the 800-meter-wide asteroid Didymos to deflect a small 160-meter-wide moon Dimorphos. This is a test to see if a potential asteroid coming towards earth can be deflected slightly, thereby changing course and missing our planet. Fear not – this particular asteroid is just a test subject and is in no way on a collision course with our home planet.
The highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (successor to the Hubble Space Telescope) was launched on Christmas Day. It has a much larger mirror system and will study nascent galaxies in the near infrared, allowing us to see through the gas and dust of early galaxies. The sunshade is the size of a tennis court and will protect the telescope from the heat of the sun and block light from the earth and moon. It will operate at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where the temperature of space is -223 degrees Celsius. The JWST will be able to trace back to the beginning of the universe, some 13.8 billion years ago. One of his many projects will be to see if black holes helped create the galaxies, or if they came after. It will also search for signs of life in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.
Known as “The Backyard Astronomer,” Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, as well as past president of the RASC Ottawa Center. He has been interviewed on over 50 Canadian radio stations as well as on television across Canada and the United States. In recognition of his public awareness of astronomy, the International Astronomical Union awarded him the name asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator, Facebook and his website: www.wondersofastronomy.com