The most powerful supernova ever recorded started our year off with a bang and pushed the limits of astrophysics like they didn’t matter. At its peak it was 600 billion times brighter than our sun, more than 20 times as bright as the stellar output of the entire Milky Way. Deeply redshifted, the star must have been very far away. And huge: in order to have produced the energy output we saw, either it confirmed the hypothesis of magnetars or it was a hypergiant among hypergiants: hundreds of times the mass of our sun, an object so rare that we’d never seen one die.
Then there were the gravitational waves. It all started with the collision of two supermassive black holes, a cataclysm that warped space-time and left intergalactic-scale ripples in its wake. LIGO interferometers were able to detect the ripples, substantiating Einstein’s theory of general relativity and strengthening conclusions about string theory. Finding gravitational waves indicates that we may be able to detect non-light signals from before the recombination era, which is to say that we might be able to tease out data from so far back in time that it’s before there was any such thing as light.
It’s been a pretty great year for planetary science, too. Juno settled into its science orbit around Jupiter and immediately started taking measurements of gravity and the electromagnetic environment, snapping beauty shots of Jupiter and its moons when it’s not otherwise occupied trying to find out whether there’s metallic hydrogen at Jupiter’s core. Cassini has been busy too, investigating Saturn’s rings, moons and general electrical and chemical environment. Stalwart Curiosity has been beaming back a constant stream of data from Mars as it ascends 5.5-km Mount Sharp. And Dawn has been peering below the surface of Ceres to see what secrets the dwarf planet hides.
And speaking of dwarf planets: It wasn’t Nemesis and it wasn’t Vulcan, but some astronomers from Caltech have put forth a convincing argument that there’s another planet lurking at the edge of our solar system. The mysterious Planet 9, or Planet X, is supposed to have a highly elliptical orbit that’s out of plane with the rest of the planets. The astronomers who found it noticed orbital eccentricities in several Kuiper Belt objects that all pointed in just the same direction, and were all twisted out of the ecliptic in the same direction, to the same degree. Further research and telescope time will tell.
Exoplanets are no exception to this year’s bumper crop of planet-related discoveries. Kepler put forth a shortlist of twenty likely habitable exoplanets that invite further observation, and then we found a little exoplanet in the Goldilocks zone around Proxima Centauri. Granted, we still can’t really get to any of these places, to see if they’re really as temperate and tolerable as we think. But we sure can stare at them through our telescopes while science and policy catch up to our off-world ambitions.
It’s been a pretty great year for maps of space, too. 2016 saw the largest cubic volume of space ever mapped, deepest view back in time we’d ever got, and now a map of the entire visible universe has been released. Did you know the visible universe is about 93 billion light years across? Now you do.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 toted the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module up to the ISS. After a few hiccups, the ISS crew managed to blow up their inflatable space bounce castle, and the astronauts have been testing it since to see how it performs against the unending cold and the vacuum of space. It’s made of glass fabric like BETA cloth, and the inside is covered in all the Velcro straps you might expect. The BEAM module is supposed to be a proof of concept for future modular storage and astronaut hab modules that would be easier to get into orbit because you could flat pack ’em like IKEA.
Also, the Hubble telescope got a five-year mission extension. The Great Observatory is still going strong after its 2009 tuneup, and now the Space Telescope Science Institute has a little bit more scratch to keep the Hubble project running until 2021. With the expected launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, we might get a little spoiled with all the things we can see from all those eyes in the sky.
This photo was taken looking out the window on the ISS as the Earth turns below. Image: NASA
This year, the International Space Station made its 100,000th orbit around our planet. The orbits of the ISS carve out a weaving, sinusoid path around the Earth such that the entire globe can be observed and photographed from the spacecraft, from pole to pole. That fact may cause cognitive dissonance to some members of the Flat Earth Society.
Darn.
SpaceX lost a rocket when it exploded on the launch pad during fueling. The rocket was unmanned and there was nobody on the launch pad, but it had its payload already aboard. When they hooked up to the helium pressure vessel for fueling, the combination of cryogenic liquid helium and vibration from operations led to the carbon-fiber-wrapped pressure vessel giving way and sending up a mighty fireball.
The ESA’s Schiaparelli rover was also lost. It happened during the descent to the Martian surface, when its software became convinced it was actually below the surface of Mars, instead of two miles up and still in freefall. Thankfully the loss of the rover didn’t imperil the rest of the ExoMars mission.
But we found Philae! The lander got to comet 67P just fine, but when it tried to land, it ended up tumbling and getting stuck in a crevice. Philae’s parent spacecraft, Rosetta, found it just before it was itself due to touch down on 67P.
Maybe the best thing to come out of this year was a series of strides forward in our new space race. Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, Rocket Labs, SpaceX and ULA are all doing hardware testing. SpaceX has been pouring a lot of money into Mars-related projects. NASA is holding a competition among aerospace giants to see who can design the best next-gen space hab module.
Credit: Barry Macdonald
Then again, from the ESA’s 2016 Couture in Orbit fashion show comes this image of, I presume, a space Inquisitor from the galactic Ministry of Magic, trying desperately (and failing hard!) to look like a Muggle on the catwalk. Five European fashion schools participated in the show, paired with five astronauts, each of whom worked with a school from their home country to come up with a series of increasingly… let’s call them avant-garde designs for the clothing of the future. Click here if you want to see their space Hammer pants. Yeah, that’s a thing now. You’re welcome.