Great moments in the universe

Space stories in 2021 seemed to be dominated by humans and projects trying to commercialize, colonize, or otherwise explore our corner of the universe.

The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to reach Mars with its orbital probe named Hope. Congratulations!

China and the United States managed to land their rovers on the red planet and have not yet collided with each other in their search for life. Hooray!

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, entered suborbital space. So did Richard Branson and his groovy beard.

The men with big money were ridiculed for what were perceived as hubris manifestations of ego. Is there any other kind?

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Captain Kirk really went out into space.

People were so annoyed with Mr. Bezos that they launched a petition on to deny Mr. Bezos a return to Earth.

Nearly 200,000 people signed, but Mr Bezos came home anyway.

Still, it may be a small signature from man, but a giant ‘up yours’ from humanity. Hov hov!

More importantly, and somehow heartwarming, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) finally touched the face of the room in a pair of sensible pants. Well done, sir!

Some remarkable missions

On Christmas morning, NASA launched the $ 10 billion ($ 13.8 billion) James Webb Space Telescope with the humble mission of seeking out the birth of the universe, almost.

One of the most beautiful things about looking at stars is that you actually see ancient history.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA

The mission, as lyrically described by New York Times, is to find the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies that appeared 13.7 billion years ago and “burned out of a nebula left over from the Big Bang” (which occurred 13.8 billion years ago ).

This year, NASA got a new role.

Until 2021, the space agency’s mission was about exploration. Now it has moved to defend the planet from stubborn life-killing asteroids.

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How the spacecraft will crash into an asteroid. Image: NASA

In November, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission was launched.

The idea is taken straight from Hollywood: Drive a spacecraft into an asteroid in an attempt to smash it off course.

The plan is to hit the target asteroid, known as Dimorphos, at 24,140 km / h as it orbits a larger asteroid Didymos.

Read more here.

Death of a galaxy

The galaxy loses 10,000 suns a year. Image: ESO

Astronomers have apparently seen for the first time a galaxy bleeding to death – after colliding and merging with another galaxy.

Researchers from the Center for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University discovered a galaxy called ID2299, which emits nearly half of its star-forming gas.

The galaxy loses the equivalent of 10,000 suns a year in gas, removing 46 percent of the total cold gas contained in the galaxy.

Because the galaxy also forms stars very fast, hundreds of times faster than our Milky Way, the gas left will be consumed quickly.

At the current rate, ID2299 will shut down in just a few tens of thousands of years.

This is much faster than the typical duration of star formation episodes in galaxies, which is a few billion years.

Read more here.

The earth is losing its luster

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An image of the space station shows Earthshine on the Moon. Photo: NASA

Be aware of aliens from outer space: If you think the Earth looks less shiny than it was 20 years ago, well, your spectacle eyes are not deceiving you.

Earth-bound scientists are just as surprised at the extent to which our planet reflects less light.

A reduction in the amount of low-lying reflective clouds over the warming sea is apparently to blame.

Shorter version: Climate change.

According to a statement from the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Earth now reflects “about half a watt less light per square meter than it was 20 years ago, when most of the fall occurred in the last three years with Earthshine data.” .

Read more here.

Biggest comet, as ever

The giant comet last visited our inner solar system three million years ago. Image: NOIRlab

American scientists have discovered the largest and perhaps strangest comet ever discovered, and it is heading into our inner solar system for the first time in three million years.

Most comets have a diameter of less than 10 kilometers.

But the monster comet discovered in June is estimated to be 100 to 200 kilometers in diameter and about 1000 times larger than a typical comet.

The enormous size is a rough estimate based on how much sunlight the comet reflects. But almost everything about it is massive in scope.

The comet’s inward journey began six trillion kilometers away – 40,000 times longer than the distance between the Sun and Earth.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein – named after scientists from the University of Pennsylvania who discovered it – will arrive at its nearest point on the Sun in 2031, known as the perihelion.

But there is no need to worry about the potential oblivion – the comet is not expected to get any closer than Saturn, which is about 1.5 billion kilometers away.

Read more here.

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Comet Leonard made beautiful by a northern light. Image: Origin Space

Elsewhere, a small satellite belonging to Chinese space resource company Origin Space captured this beautiful image of comet Leonard as it approached Earth on December 12.

After making its nearest orbit around the Sun on January 3, the comet will disappear from sight for 80,000 years.

According to, the satellite telescope that captured the image, Yangwang 1, was launched earlier this year.

Its mission is to observe the universe around our planet in visible and ultraviolet light in search of terrestrial asteroids that can potentially be extracted for resources.

Einstein ring: A cosmic bull’s eye

In September, NASA released an image from the Hubble Telescope of one of the largest and most complete Einstein rings ever seen.

An Einstein ring is a bull’s eye pattern created when the light from a galaxy far away is distorted into a circular form of gravity by a giant elliptical galaxy.

This phenomenon is called gravitational lenses and was first predicted by Albert Einstein almost a century ago.

Gravitational lenses occur when the gravitational field from a solid object distorts space and diverts light from a distant object behind.

Einstein rings are the most elegant manifestation of the lens phenomenon. They are formed when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned, one behind the other.

Live fast, die young: Star James’ Dean

In celebration of the 31st anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers aimed the large observatory at a rare and glorious “celebrity star” known as AG Carinae.

It is one of the brightest stars seen in our galaxy, surrounded by a glowing halo of gas and dust – proof that it “leads a tug of war between gravity and radiation to avoid self-destruction”.

The expanding shell of gas and dust that surrounds the star is about five light-years wide – the same distance from here to the nearest star behind the Sun, Proxima Centauri.

NASA says that the enormous structure was created from one or more giant eruptions about 10,000 years ago.

The outer layer of the star was blown out into space – “like a boiling teapot leaping from the lid”.

“The emitted material is equivalent to about 10 times the mass of our sun,” NASA said in a statement.

“These eruptions are the typical life of a rare star species called a luminous blue variable, a short spasmodic phase in the short life of an ultralight, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young.

“These stars are among the most massive and brightest stars known.

“They only live a few million years compared to our sun about 10 billion years. AG Carinae is a few million years old and lives 20,000 light-years away inside our Milky Way galaxy.”

How rare is it? There are about 50 of them in what is known as the local group, the group of more than 20 galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs.

The milking ring

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A mosaic of the Milky Way seen from Earth. Photo: Alvin Wu

When you are out of town, away from bright light, you can see the Milky Way spreading across the sky in an apparent arc.

The farther your location is, the closer the star’s arc becomes.

Over the course of two years, Chinese photographer Alvin Wu collected images from China and New Zealand, which he then arranged in this award-winning panoramic mosaic.

NASA describes it this way: “A surface of cosmic dust, stars and nebulae along the planet of our Milky Way galaxy forms a beautiful ring in this projected view of the sky.

“The creative panorama covers the entire galaxy visible from planet Earth, an ambitious 360-degree mosaic … Like a glowing jewel set in the milky ring, the bulge of the galactic center is at the very top. The bright planet Jupiter is the lighthouse just above the central bulge and to the left of the red giant star Antares.

“Along the plane and almost 180 degrees from the galactic center, at the bottom of the ring is the area around Orion, inhabiting the northern hemisphere’s winter winter sky.

“In this projection, the Ring of the Milky Way encompasses two remarkable galaxies in the southern sky, the large and small Magellanic clouds.”

All we can say is “wow”.

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