Few fields of study are as interesting as astronomy, and fewer still elicit such a widespread response from the general public. You don’t have to be a professional astronomer to be fascinated by stellar objects and want to learn more about them. The subject is quite complex, and a lot of work and research goes behind even the smallest discoveries. This is perhaps what makes it all the more interesting for enthusiasts, as it is pretty extraordinary to think how far away we are from the other objects in our solar system. Yet, scientists still manage to take measurements, analyze them, and bring back the results.
Studying the night sky has been practiced across the world for millennia, and there are still so many things left to discover. While it would be quite impossible to create a list that can comprise all the greatest discoveries in astronomy so far, let’s do a recap of the most important findings that have shaped the world during the last decade.
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Pluto has a notorious (and somewhat sad) reputation as the celestial object demoted from its planet status back in 2006. However, until 2015, there were no accurate photos that even showed exactly what Pluto looks like. Other planets, such as Mercury, Saturn, and Jupiter, were well-known and easily recognizable, but the Hubble was only able to get blurry photos of Pluto that couldn’t even compare with the others.
However, following the New Horizons mission, which had a destination aim forty times larger than the span between the Sun and the Earth, humanity got to learn many new things about the tiny dwarf in the Kuiper belt. Some of them include:
- The presence of five satellite moons
- Pluto’s atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, extends roughly 1,600 km into space, compared to Earth’s 480 km
- The seasons last for decades on Pluto due to its horizontal tilt
- There’s a 1,000 km wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier on Pluto, the largest in the solar system
- The surface is very colorful, something that took both researchers and the public by surprise at the moment.
This is a subject whose secrets have not yet been fully unveiled and which is still mainly in the hypothetical realm. Thought to account for roughly 85% of all the matter in the observable universe, dark matter has earned its name due to the fact that it doesn’t seem to interact with the electromagnetic field, making it difficult to detect. However, observations, including gravitational effects that cannot be explained unless more matter is present than can be seen directly, indicate that the existence of dark matter, or at least something very similar, is a certainty. For this reason, astrophysicists believe understanding dark matter and how it operates are important aspects science must uncover to decode the universe’s evolution and structure.
One of the tools that have been used to reveal the secrets of dark matter is the spectrometer, an instrument that can help split the light collected by telescopes into separate colors. Studying the glow a space object emanates offers several indications of its origins and characteristics. Around the early to mid-2010s, NASA used it to detect positrons or antimatter in cosmic rays.
Now, in 2022, a new theory posits that black holes could be one of the components of dark matter, acting as a sort of gravitational glue that holds galaxies together. Hopefully, more developments will be discovered in that area soon enough. This brings us to our next point, which is:
Similar to dark matter, black holes are perhaps one of the scariest things about space simply because, as of yet, there’s not much that is known about them. Still, they’ve developed quite a reputation as places with a gravitational pull so intense that not even light can escape from them. Since no light can get out, if you, hypothetically, had a black hole right in front of you, you wouldn’t be able to see it. Gravity is so potent in these areas because matter has been compressed into a very small space, an event that typically occurs with the death of an astronomical object, such as that of a star.
The first-ever captured image of a black hole was released in 2019. But wait, you might think, how was this photo taken if black holes are invisible to the naked eye? Well, the blurry spot depicted in the photograph is actually a black hole’s shadow, a dark region encircled by a luminous ring. The size and shape appear as a result of the black hole’s momentum and mass. The force of it is so strong when feeding on cosmic gas and matter that it actually glows. Using powerful spectrometers that can detect the invisible, scientists look at the Doppler shift of stars, comparing their brightness level over a determined amount of time. Significant variations, with a star having luminescence levels that soar up then dim in a set pattern, indicates the presence of a black hole.
Exoplanets are all plants that exist outside the solar system. Discovering one is always very interesting, as most people associate it with the eternal question, “Are we alone in the universe?”. Therefore, every new finding is an opportunity to, perhaps, locate extraterrestrial life, or at least a planet other than Earth that could support life. Astronomers look for features such as the presence of liquid water on the surface, the distance between the planet and its parent star, as well as temperature variations.
From the early 2010s to 2018, the Kepler Space Telescope uncovered thousands of new planets, of which hundreds were similar to Earth in size. The data is very valuable and is set to be studied for decades from now on. The mission was very successful, as the telescope managed to find all the space objects it could using its technological solutions. While it faced some challenges and suffered a system failure in 2013, scientists managed to get it back on track to continue its task.
The last decade has come with many new and exciting discoveries for astronomy lovers. The 2020s are set to be just as astonishing as new missions are setting out to uncover even more of the secrets of the universe. While there’ll still be a long while until astronomy unveils all of them, something which may very well never happen, the beauty of new discoveries persists.