As we approach the end of 2019, we can look back and celebrate a remarkable set of achievements in our understanding and exploration of the universe beyond our planet. Here are ten of the finest achievements in space of the last 10 years.
Hubble Space Telescope reveals the beauty of the universe
The Hubble Space Telescope is the grande dame of the astronomy world, providing a seemingly unending trove of data and images about space – especially since the high-definition Wide Field Camera 3 was installed in 2009. In this decade, data from Hubble has helped to pin down the rate of expansion of the universe, measure the age of star clusters, and taught us more about dark matter, to name just a few of the achievements enabled by this unique instrument. It’s also helped stoke the public’s interest in astronomy by capturing some truly beautiful images of deep space.
Visiting bodies in our solar system
This decade has also seen more exploration of our solar system than ever before, with the Juno craft visiting Jupiter in 2016, the Dawn craft making the first visit to a dwarf planet, Ceres, in 2015, the Messenger probe becoming the first to orbit Mercury in 2011, and the New Horizons mission becoming not only the first craft to explore Pluto in 2015, but also visiting the furthest object ever explored, Arrokoth, in 2019.
Cassini’s Grand Finale
The 19-year Cassini mission to Saturn launched in 1997 was a huge success, and it ended in equally spectacular fashion. As part of the craft’s “Grand Finale” before running out of fuel, it was deliberately deorbited into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017. In its last minutes, the craft dove closer to Saturn than any craft has come before or since, gathering data until the last possible second that is still being analyzed for scientific insights today. The last dive ensured that the craft was destroyed safely and would not pollute the planet or any of its moons with biological matter.
Hayabusa 1 brings the first sample of an asteroid back to Earth
Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 1 became the craft first to return a sample of an asteroid back to Earth in 2010, having visited a small near-Earth asteroid named 25143 Itokawa in 2005. This pristine sample was an invaluable resource for scientists observing asteroids, as typically when they analyze meteorites it is difficult or impossible to determine their origin.
Voyager 1 becomes the first human-made object in interstellar space
In the late 70s, forward-thinking scientists undertook a remarkable project: Launching the Voyager 1 space probe into deep space. The probe spent the 70s and 80s traveling through our solar system, and by the early 2000s, it was out on the fringes of space. In 2012, the probe crossed the boundary of space affected by the Sun’s solar wind, called the heliopause, and entered interstellar space, becoming the first human-made object ever to do so. The plucky little probe is expected to continue its mission into the next decade, until 2025.
First-ever detection of gravitational waves
Physicists had long predicted the existence of ripples in space-time called gravitational waves but no one had ever observed one. An instrument built to detect them, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) had been operating since 2002 without any success. But perseverance does pay off, and in 2015 LIGO finally saw gravitational waves when two black holes, each around 30 times the mass of our Sun, collided and sent out ripples which could be detected from Earth. The LIGO team won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 for their efforts.
SpaceX landed its first orbital rocket booster
This decade has seen an explosion of innovation in the private space sector, arguably led by SpaceX. In 2015, the company landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket after takeoff in a huge milestone for the development of reusable rockets. Reusable rockets have been considered by organizations like NASA since the 1960s, but SpaceX were the ones to finally make them happen.
First image of black hole captured
An international team of astronomers made headlines in 2019 when they achieved something that had previously been considered impossible: They imaged a black hole. As black holes absorb everything which comes close to them, even light, it was thought impossible to observe one visually. Taking the iconic image of M87* in the Messier 87 galaxy required the use of radio telescopes around the globe from Hawaii to Antarctica which turned the Earth itself into a virtual array powerful enough to observe the event horizon of a black hole for the first time.
Landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars
There have been pioneering rovers on Mars since the trail-blazing Sojourner in 1997, but none have been as technologically complex as Curiosity, the NASA rover that landed in Mars’s Gale Crater in 2012. Curiosity is far larger and heavier than previous Mars rovers, making it much more challenging to land. It is equipped with sophisticated instruments that have captured haunting images of the Martian landscape, uncovered organic molecules in rock samples, and even found evidence that the planet could once have supported microbial life. The mission is also notable for its highly effective public outreach, including the rover’s utterly delightful first-person Twitter account.
Completion of the International Space Station
The ISS was completed in 2011, and it has enabled humanity to maintain a continuous presence in space throughout this decade. It’s easy for us to take it for granted, but the construction of the ISS is arguably the most important scientific achievement of the 21st century. Not only has the station provided a venue for scientific research into everything from experimental cancer drugs to understanding dark matter to how to make future space missions safer for astronauts, but it is also a truly remarkable accomplishment of international cooperation in a time of global mistrust and uncertainty.
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