Biggest Space Discoveries of 2016:
Top 10 Stories of Our Universe
2016 quickly became a year decorated in scientific achievements. From proving Einstein’s theories to possible new planets, space flooded every news network. These are Astronimate’s top 10 biggest space discoveries of 2016:
Great Lake portions of water discovered on Mars
Locating water on other planets has always been one of astronomy’s holy grails. Because, where there is water, there is likely to be life.
Previously, Mars was a warm planet, sheltered by a thick atmosphere and covered in water. Actually, still present, we have seen this water with our own eyes. However, water ice deposits remain completely frozen underneath Mars’ north and south poles. But, how much water remains on our red neighbor?
Using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers carefully studied the Utopia Planitia region of Mars. Locked underneath, they discovered ice deposits containing as much water as Lake Superior, the largest of Earth’s Great Lakes! In other words, the same amount of water as a lake that spans nearly 32,000 square miles and holds nearly 3,000 cubic miles in volume!
In fact, the deposits ranged from around 260 feet to 560 feet in thickness, and contained around 50% to 80% water ice. The remainders are dust and other rocky particles.
Unfortunately, this ice’s water could not exist on this region of Mars today, due to the planet’s anemic atmosphere. Yet, possibilities of using this for future resources made Mars’ water deposits one of the biggest space discoveries of 2016.
Alien megastructure orbiting Tabby’s Star
More than 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, lies the star KIC 8462852, also known as “Tabby’s Star.” And, this F-type main-sequence star is rather ordinary in nearly every way. However, it was still among our top 10 biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Astronomers search for exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) by monitoring the light of stars. As exoplanets pass in front of their star, the light dips ever so slightly. Therefore, exoplanets’ orbits or light dips are monitored in regular intervals.
However, Tabby’s Star is orbited by a mystery object that dips the star’s light in irregular intervals. Being that this could not possibly be a planet, otherworldly theories instantly went through the roof! From alien megastructures to death weapons, extraterrestrial conspiracies ran rampant. Still confused, astronomers are still struggling to provide a likely explanation. Currently, leading candidates are a broken-up family of comets and an unknown object or structure between Earth and the star.
Then, to make matters even more confusing, highly precise and accurate data shows that Tabby’s Star is dimming extremely fast. Stars of this type are not known to dim quickly and we see this in no other known stars. Therefore, the Tabby mystery of 2016 wages on!
Tiny dwarf planet has its own satellite
Far, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies the Kuiper Belt. This doughnut-shaped belt of icy bodies is thought to contain over a trillion comets and millions of other objects. Currently, the Kuiper Belt is also home to five officially recognized dwarf planets, including our beloved former-planet, Pluto! So, how did one of the tiniest planets become one of our biggest space discoveries of 2016?
Next, is the second brightest of the Kuiper Belt planets, Makemake (pronounced “Mah-kay Mah-kay”). Receiving its name from an Easter Island deity of the Rapa Nui, Makemake is only around 800 miles across. Not to mention, the small planet is not known to have any Moons. That is, until April of 2016.
Images from Hubble revealed a small satellite, estimated to be around 100 miles across, orbiting 13,000 miles out from Makemake. And, at over a thousand times dimmer than Makemake, the Moon, named MK2, was no easy find! Fortunately, Hubble’s amazing ability to decipher dim and bright objects near one another, mixed with its sheer crispness, spotted the tiny satellite.
A team of astronomers used the same Hubble technique that revealed the tiny satellites of Pluto in 2005. Several previous observations of the Makemake system came up empty-handed. However, astronomers now know that MK2’s orbit is edge-on, making it easily lost in the planet’s superior glare. Eagerly, astronomers look to use this same technique on other “moonless” worlds, hoping to reveal more cosmic treasures.
Discoveries of such Moons can help shed light on a planetary system’s mass, which tells us about its birth and evolution.
Observable universe drastically bigger than we thought!
At least two trillion galaxies. Yes, two trillion galaxies are now thought to exist in our universe. Not to mention, the vast majority of these galaxies are so far away and faint, we are unable to see them, even with our most powerful telescopes. In fact, we are only able to see around 10% of these worlds!
Surprisingly, this galactic count is around ten times more than previously predicted! To reach such figures, a select group of astronomers carefully studied 20 years of Hubble images. Instantly, the images revealed much higher galaxy counts than before.
Hubble, the world’s most powerful telescope, has been scanning deep space for nearly three decades. But, even this workhorse can barely see 10% of visible galaxies. However, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s successor, will double our galactic visibility. Sadly, JWST does not launch until late 2018.
Cassini’s heroic dive through Saturn’s rings
Traveling at 47,000 miles per hour, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a historical first dive directly through Saturn’s rings in December.
Since arriving at Saturn, nearly 20 years ago, Cassini has accomplished a wealth of game-changing experiments. In fact, the majority of our modern Saturn knowledge has come from the small craft’s data.
Now, for the mission’s grand finale, the spacecraft will spend 20 weeks diving through our solar system’s most spectacular sight. Although, we know the rings are made almost entirely of water ice, Cassini will investigate remaining mysteries. Among the mysteries, the unidentified source of the rings’ coloration. Not to mention, images sent back to Earth are expected to be simply stunning.
Finally, in September 2017, the small craft will dive perilously into Saturn, intentionally ending its life. While crashing, brave Cassini will collect and relay valuable information about Saturn’s insides, including its magnetic field and more! Therefore, for bravery, unlocking Saturn’s many mysteries and more, Cassini earns a spot on our biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Elusive Planet Nine continues to intrigue astronomers
While we lost a planet when Pluto was demoted, begrudgingly in 2006, we potentially gain a new one nearing 2017. Topping many astronomer’s “to-find” lists, Planet Nine became a hot topic in 2016.
To explain unusual orbits of objects beyond Neptune, theories about a mystery object were raised. Then, in January 2016, two researchers from Caltech (Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown) proposed that a planet would be the most likely explanation. In fact, they even provided proposed orbital paths for such a planet.
Batygin and Brown’s hypothetical planet would be a “super Earth,” with a mass 10 times that of our planet, 2-4 times our diameter and a wildly elliptical orbit. In fact, its highly egg-shaped orbital period would be around 15,000 years!
Astronomers have been scurrying to not only locate the hidden Planet Nine, but also explain its existence. Currently, one theory says Planet Nine got knocked from a previously closer orbit around our Sun. Another, states that our solar system captured the planet from another star. However, without even locating the planet, no explanation is certain as of now.
At last, Planet Nine’s days on the lam are thought to be numbered. Members of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences believe by Winter 2017, somebody will have tracked the planet down. Simply put, there will be so many teams searching for the mystery object, it will no longer be able to hide. Currently, around 10 full groups are actively scouring the heavens for Planet Nine.
Aside from being one of the greatest space races this decade, Planet Nine is one of our biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Galaxy made almost purely of dark matter
Astronomers stumbled across a peculiar galaxy in mid-2016, known as Dragonfly 44. At 70,000 light-years away, Dragonfly 44 has approximately the same mass as our Milky Way galaxy. However, it also contains fewer than 1/100 of our star count!
Stars accurately show astronomers the mass of galaxies through their behavior. Basically, certain amounts of mass equal very specific speeds and motions. However, when measuring Dragonfly 44, astronomers saw stars moving incredibly fast relative to the galaxy’s contained mass. In fact, only around 1/100 of the galaxy’s mass was in the form of visible, or “normal” matter. What could cause such a discrepancy?
Currently, dark matter remains the leading culprit behind Dragonfly 44. Dark matter, refers to currently invisible, and unidentified matter, making up nearly 25% of our universe. Currently unidentified, dark matter and twin, dark energy, are at the top of every scientist’s list.
Given that Dragonfly 44 is rather close to Earth in cosmic terms, and made of 99.9% dark matter, it is a true asset. And, for helping us solve one of astronomy’s main mysteries, Dragonfly 44 is one of our biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Planet found orbiting Earth’s closest star, Proxima Centauri
Since the official start of our search in the 1980s, we have confirmed more than 3,500 exoplanets. However, in August 2016 we discovered and confirmed one right in our own cosmic backyard!
Orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, exoplanet Proxima Centauri B, is suddenly the leading candidate for our cosmic home-away-from-home. Primarily, because the neighboring solar system sits a short 4.42 light-years away. But, also because the planet orbits within its red dwarf star’s habitable zone, or Goldilocks Zone.
However, Proxima Centauri B is only in initial stages for becoming a genuine candidate for mankind, or other life. After all, though 4 light-years is a mere hop-skip in cosmic terms, it is just under 26 trillion miles in reality. Even NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft, which launched in 1977, has now only travelled around 12 billion miles. And, while a truly amazing feat, the craft would still need to travel 2,000 times this journey to achieve Proxima Centauri B’s distance.
Not to mention, being in the habitable zone can be deceptive. After all, Venus lies just within our Sun’s habitable zone and is one of the most hostile environments in our solar system.
Ultimately, this discovery has illuminated the already fiery-hot exoplanet hunt. And, regardless of barriers and distances, Proxima Centauri B is an exciting leap towards life outside of our own solar system. Not to mention, one of the biggest space discoveries of 2016.
NASA’s Juno mission arrives at Jupiter
July 4, 2016 saw global history as NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered the orbit of our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. Launching in the summer of 2011, the entirely solar-powered craft zipped at over 160,000 miles per hour to reach the gas juggernaut. Equipped with today’s most advanced instruments, Juno hopes to unlock some of Jupiter’s greatest mysteries.
In Roman mythology, Jupiter concealed his dubious behavior under a cloak of clouds. Only his wife, Juno was able to gaze through the clouds. Hence, the tiny craft’s apropos name. Primarily, Juno’s instruments will carefully study the planet’s interior, buried far beneath its thick, cloudy atmosphere. Peering deep below the clouds, Juno will reveal answers to the planet’s mysterious auroras, atmospheric water, magnetic field, hypothetical solid core and more.
Ultimately, Jupiter likely played a critical part in the solar system’s formation and evolution. Therefore, understanding more about Jupiter is understanding more about our own solar system’s creation. And, as one of astronomy’s most sought-after mysteries, Juno aims to unlock several key answers to our cosmic.
In all, the spacecraft will complete more than 30 orbits around the gas giant, accomplishing numerous experiments along the way. Ultimately, the spacecraft will complete an intentional crash-and-burn into the massive planet in February, 2018, officially ending the mission. Therefore, tiny Juno deservedly makes our biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Einstein proven right 100 years later through gravitational waves
Regardless of who you ask, gravitational waves easily top the biggest space discoveries of 2016!
Essentially, a fabric of space and time makes up the universe itself. And, as massive objects interact with this spacetime fabric, they create ripples. These ripples are gravitational waves. Obviously, like waves in a pool, the larger the object, the larger the wave. Therefore, to detect faint waves from billions of miles away, LIGO required very large, massive objects. And, it doesn’t get much more massive than two black holes!
LIGO uses two extremely precise laser beams to intercept gravitational waves. Simply put, lasers get fired simultaneously, bounce off of mirrors and return to Earth. Finally, both lasers should return at identical times, unless something affects their journey, like gravity waves! Plus, the lasers can detect absurdly small waves. After all, when the black holes’ waves finally reached Earth, they were smaller than a single atom!