Science & Technology

The 5 Biggest Astronomy Stories of 2019

When historians think back to this year's space breakthroughs, surely high on their list of remembrances will be the epic group of people who finally imaged a black hole. After all, that's been a quest of astronomers ever since we knew that these things existed! There are other astronomy stories to take note of in 2019, though. Check out our picks below.

1. Imaging a Black Hole

In April, astronomers snagged the first images of the event horizon of a black hole. That's the bordering region that delineates where the gravity of the black hole is so strong that nothing can escape — not even light. This image was only possible because several telescopes around the world worked together to capture the dim light emanating from an object 55 million light-years away. (That's about 11 times further than our closest star system.) Getting pictures of black holes will let astronomers better understand what happens to these strange objects after they form.

2. Interstellar Comet

There was also the comet that came from another region of space. The visitor, known as 2I/Borisov, came from some location outside of our solar system on a quick streak through our neighborhood. New images from the Hubble Space Telescope taken in mid-December showed that the nucleus (or heart) of the comet was less than 500 meters across — roughly 15 times smaller than astronomers expected. These observations will be valuable as astronomers look for other visitors to our solar system and try to figure out if the comets that are made near other stars are similar to those made in our own solar neighborhood.

3. Earth's Second Interstellar Spacecraft Sends Back a Dispatch

We Earthlings are capable of sending stuff beyond the solar system, too! Late last year, NASA officially confirmed that the Voyager 2 spacecraft made it to interstellar space, and now we're starting to see the first data flow back from that region. Voyager 1, its twin, entered this zone in 2012. The two Voyagers were launched in 1977 to do a tour of the outer solar system. Between them, they visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and continued transmitting long after their primary mission was done. The two spacecraft continue to send us new, incredible insights from interstellar space, and the hope is they will continue working for a few more years so we can gather as much information as possible.

4. First Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon

The incredible Chang'e-4 lander — the very first to touch down on the moon's far side in January — is now the first astronomical observatory in this region of the solar system. The Chinese lander deployed a radio telescope in December. This area of the moon is perfect for radio astronomy because it's so quiet. Here, all the radio activity from Earth is blocked by the bulk of the moon, making it a perfect spot to peer out into the cosmos for faint radio signals. The rub is that you need extra satellites to relay the information back to Earth, but Chang'e-4 is doing so with no issues so far. As a bonus, a little rover called Yutu 2 rode along and has explored hundreds of meters of terrain to better understand what the moon's far side looks like.

5. Water Is Everywhere on Mars

A new water map of Mars (published in Geophysical Research Letters) shows there's a lot of ice just a tiny bit below the planet's surface, at a depth of just an inch or so beneath the red sands. This ice is so close that probably it would just take a gentle scoop to flush it out and use it for rocket fuel or (with some purification) drinking water. Having water in place makes it much easier to send astronauts to Mars because it means they don't have to cart this vital substance all the way across the solar system. NASA hopes to land humans on Mars in the mid-2030s if the agency's plans to put a person on the moon by 2024 goes to schedule.

Written by Elizabeth Howell December 21, 2019

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