The 6 Biggest Space Discoveries And Breakthroughs Of 2020

The 6 Biggest Space Discoveries And Breakthroughs Of 2020

Space Discoveries And Breakthroughs Of 2020
Photo Credit: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY


2020, a year that many of us would like to forget. But despite the fact that a deadly pandemic raged across the planet, 2020 still had some good moments, and when it comes to space exploration, the year was full of astronomical discoveries and breakthroughs. 

We watched as Elon Musk changed the way we travel to space forever, we marveled at magnificent photographs of mysterious, far-flung objects and we listened as ambitious spacecraft revealed new secrets about our neighboring planets. 

Although the coronavirus outbreak gripped the world in 2020, many astronomers and scientists continued searching the skies, attempting to solve the mysteries of the universe. So let's look back at some of the biggest space discoveries and breakthroughs of the year 2020. 

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The Mystery of Marsquakes

Back in February 2020, the first results from NASA'S Insight lander were published, revealing that the Martian probe had detected hundreds of "Marsquakes". Insight landed on Mars in 2018 and began detecting possible Quakes by using an extremely sensitive seismometer and an array of other scientific instruments. 

The probe collects data from deep inside the red planet, allowing scientists to study geological activity and the internal structure of Mars. Many of the quakes that Insight detected were small, however around 20 of the tremors were relatively significant, reaching a magnitude of 3 to 4 on the Richter scale, which on Earth, might be powerful enough to be felt as a rumble on the ground, but usually aren't strong enough to cause serious damage. 

It also discovered that unlike Earth, the Marsquakes tended to originate far deeper in the planet, roughly 20 to 30 miles deep, which is around 30-50 kilometers deep. The general cause of the Marsquakes is likely the long term cooling of the red planet's interior, however, the specific cause is still a mystery. 

A New Space Age Begins

In May of 2020, Elon Musks SpaceX made history by successfully launching the world's first crewed commercial space flight. The mission was a test to prove that SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule could carry humans into Earth's Orbit and then dock with the international space station. 

Since the space shuttle was retired back in 2011, the only way that NASA astronauts could get to the ISS was via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and so NASA commissioned private companies to develop a new breed of a space capsule. 

The historic launch saw Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley blast into orbit, dock with the ISS and then two months later fall back to Earth, parachuting safely into the Gulf of Mexico. The SpaceX crew dragon capsule not only completed the mission and returned America's ability to fly NASA astronauts to and from the ISS, but it also redesigned the spacecraft, giving astronauts aboard the capsule a 21st-century experience. 

In June 2020, the NASA and ESA Solar Orbiter spacecraft managed to capture the closest high-resolution images ever taken of the Sun. The Solar Orbiter is an international cooperative spacecraft that was launched in February 2020. It is equipped with a payload of scientific instruments designed to explore the inner regions of the sun and the mysterious heliosphere, a giant plasma bubble that surrounds the entire solar system. 

By using these instruments the spacecraft was able to capture these stunning images of our star's hellish environment, revealing magnetic threads of superheated plasma that is burning across the Sun's outer layers. The seven-year mission will see the scorched spacecraft travel as close as 26 million miles, or 42 million kilometers from the sun, observe its violent eruptions and capture the first-ever images of its polar regions. Helping scientists better understand our closet's star. 

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A Dead Star and a Doomed Planet

2020 also added hundreds of newly discovered exoplanets to the list, bringing the total at the end of the year to 4,324 confirmed planets. One of the more fascinating exoplanet announcements, however, came in mid-September when it was reported that a giant Jupiter sized object orbiting a white dwarf star had been spotted. 

The mysterious planet, which has been named WD 1856B, is located around 80 light-years away and is the first planet to be discovered orbiting this type of star. A White dwarf is a remnant of a sun-like star, that has used up all its fuel, swelled up to hundreds or thousands of times its original size, and then ejected its outer layers, losing most of its mass and leaving only a hot, dense core. 

This white dwarf is only 40% larger than Earth, but what's strange about the discovery is that the Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting it, is extremely close to the ancient star, completing one orbit every 1.4 days. Presenting the question, how did such a large, close orbiting planet survive the death of this sunlike star. 

Searching For Life Beyond Earth

One of the most exciting announcements of 2020 also came in September, when astronomers made headlines by reporting that they had detected phosphine gas, a potential sign of life, in the atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine gas, on Earth, is a byproduct of life and so if detected on Venus could present the strongest evidence to date of life beyond Earth. 

The announcement ignited a firestorm of speculation about whether the gas could be produced by alien microbes wafting around in the Venusian clouds. However, the excitement seemed to be short-lived, as in the months that followed several new studies raised doubts about the original research, calling into question the entire discovery. 

Further research will likely be completed over a longer period of time to understand what's really going on within the clouds the Venus, but regardless of the outcome, it was still an exciting story that gripped the scientific world. 

Touching an Asteroid

In October 2020, NASA announced that its Osiris Rex space probe had successfully collected a sample from the asteroid named Bennu. The spacecraft reached the asteroid in 2018 and spent two years orbiting the giant rock while collecting data. 

Then in 2020, it maneuvered towards Bennu's surface, scooping up a rare sample of dust and rock, and stowing it away in a returns capsule, as can be seen in this amazing time-lapse footage. Although some of the material collected was lost in space, NASA reported that more than the mission requirement had been secured, which is around 2 ounces or 60 grams of the asteroid. 

The sample will be delivered to Earth in 2023, but the spacecraft won't land, instead, it will release the return capsule, which will then parachute back to the Earth and allow the main spacecraft to be reassigned to other exploration duties. 

By studying the Bennu sample, scientists hope to reveal new secrets about the origins of the solar system, life on Earth and help NASA prepare for future missions that will mine asteroids for their resources. 

Returning an Asteroid

Although the Osiris Rex sample won't arrive until 2023, in December 2020 the Japanese spacecraft HAYABUSA 2 successfully returned a sample of another near-Earth asteroid, named RYUGU. HAYABUSA 2 spent 18 months orbiting Ryugu, before making two touchdowns. 

The first collected surface samples, while the second went a step further and blasted a crater into the asteroid, loosening the rocks and exposing the material below. In December the asteroid samples arrived and landed in the Australian outback, making it the first time a sample from the interior of an asteroid had ever been collected and returned to Earth. 

Due to the success of the mission, HAYABUSA 2 will use the remainder of its fuel to explore new targets, while scientists search for clues within the returned Ryugu sample, that will help to further explain how the solar system formed and how elements like water were delivered to Earth early in its history. 

Despite all of the sadness and disruption that spread across the planet in 2020, amazing space discoveries and breakthroughs were still made and announced to the world. Once again we took impressive steps forward, solving many mysteries, but also finding new mysteries that will likely baffle scientists for many years to come. What will 2021 hold? Who knows, but I suspect it will be a year full of many more incredible discoveries, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens next. 

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