As we are about to say goodbye to 2019, let’s take a moment and recall some of the exciting Space events and Astronomical discoveries that took place this year.
For the New Horizon spacecraft (the very same mission that visited Pluto back in 2015) things got busy on January 1, when the probe got close to its new target, the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed “Ultima Thule”. To date Ultima Thule remains the most far away “brick” left over from the formation of the Solar System we ever visited. In November the object got its official name 485968 Arrokoth (meaning sky in Powhatan language).
China National Space Administration made the headlines on January 3, when the Chinese performed the first ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon. On that day the lunar explorer Chang’e-4 touched down in the Von Karman crater in the South Pole-Aitken basin and deployed its companion, rover Yutu-2. Both spacecrafts are well and fully operational.
On February 13 we said our farewells to the Mars Rover Opportunity. With the planned mission duration of about 3 months this amazing robot remained operational for almost 15 years! In June 2018 a massive sand storm broke on Mars and prevented the robot’s solar panels from powering up the robot. Opportunity went into sleeping mode and never woke up. Despite many months attempts to recover it and hundreds of radio “calls” from Earth it remain silent.
On April 6 NASA InSight mission has detected the “first quake on Mars“. The goal of the mission is to learn more about Mars’ interior and seismic activity. The lander spent almost two years on the Red Planet.
In July the World celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. The historic Apollo 11 mission was launched on July 16, 1969. And 4 days later, two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, took that “giant leap for mankind”.
The number of known moons of Jupiter and Saturn keeps going up!
On October 7, the International Astronomical Union announced the discovery of 20 new moons of Saturn. That brings the total number of the planet’s natural satellites to 82. Several months earlier, on July 16, 12 new moons of Jupiter were announced!
The recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics were announced on October 8th. This year’s prestigious award goes to the astronomers James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for “contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”. Inquisitive readers will find more information about the Nobel Prize discoveries in our post The exoplanet discovery behind the 2019 Noble Prize in Physics explained.
Mercury transit 2019 that happened on November 11 caused great excitement among amateur astronomers and stargazers all over the Globe. If you missed this exciting opportunity, mark your calendars: the next Mercury transit will occur in November 2032!
Japanese asteroid sample return mission Hayabusa 2 set off on a return journey home on the 12th of November. Hayabusa has been exploring a potentially hazardous asteroid Ryugu for almost 1.5 years. Close to the end of 2020 Hayabusa 2 will reach the Earth and send down a capsule with Ruygu samples. Hayabusa 2 might then carry on and explore a new target.
On December 18th ESA launched the first European exoplanet explorer CHEOPS. The probe will re-observe the exoplanets whose sizes we already know in order to determine their masses. That will give us an idea about those planets densities and, therefore, composition! Read more about the mission in our astronomy blog post European mission CHEOPS joins the quest to understand exoplanets.
It’s been a fruitful year for the alien enthusiasts. With hundreds of new (confirmed!) exoplanets detected this year and, most recently, the news about Water vapor detected in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, it looks like our chances of detecting a habitable world are going up!
A number of successful launches (crews 59-60, 58-59) and landings (crews 59-60) to and from the International Space Station took place in 2019. This year we finally saw Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague go into Space (the astronauts’ 2018 mission was aborted minutes after the launch) as well as the first “girls only” spacewalk by Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.