Yes, 2020 has been a terrible year for all of us. But for space, at least 12 months were quite interesting.
In the last year we have seen a variety of interesting space stories that make news, from historical launches to major scientific discoveries.
But what was the group’s choice? To find out, me organized a tour on Twitter – called # SpaceCup2020 – to see what your favorite space stories of the year were.
From an initial selection of 16 stories, hundreds of voters helped narrow those down over the next three days to finally pick a winner.
So, without further ado, here are the top eight stories you have chosen, plus a few honorable mentions at the end.
8. Arecibo collapses
In early December, I heard heartbreaking news that Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory had collapsed.
Built in the 1960s, Arecibo’s 300-meter antenna had been the largest radio telescope in the world until China’s FAST telescope began operating in January 2020.
Arecibo has been involved in numerous scientific discoveries, from finding some of the first known exoplanets to detecting mysterious rapid radio explosions (FRBs) – and has appeared in films such as Golden eyes and Contact.
But unfortunately, on December 1, the observer platform of the aged telescope crashed into the ship, destroying it without repair. Many are now worried about other telescopes of similar age.
7. Phosphine on Venus
For decades, the hunt for life beyond Earth in our solar system has largely focused on Mars. But in September, I received an all-powerful shock – was Venus perhaps a better bet?
Scientists studying Venus said they found evidence for phosphine in its atmosphere, a compound of hydrogen and phosphorus that, although toxic, could be a biomarker of life.
Excited experts began to wonder if microbial life could float in the clouds of Venus, producing this phosphine – with several follow-up missions proposed to show in more detail.
Unfortunately, that initial detection has now been called into question. Even if he can’t resist, there are still plenty of reasons to return to this fascinating world.
6. China returns samples from the moon
With everything happening at the end of 2020, you may have been forgiven for losing this story.
On November 23, China launched a lunar mission called Chang’e-5, the country’s first attempt to collect lunar surface evidence and return it to the moon.
The robotic mission was the first to attempt the Soviet Union’s 24th Moon mission in 1976.
On December 1, it successfully reached a named region Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of storms) on the moon. He collected samples and, two days later, launched himself back to Earth.
Then, on December 16, the spacecraft capsule successfully re-entered our atmosphere and landed in Inner Mongolia, where it was collected by scientists eager to study the first monthly samples returned in more than 40 years.
5. NASA removes pieces from an asteroid
The first of two asteroid sampling missions on this list, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stunned the world in October when it successfully removed material from the asteroid Bennu.
At about 320 million kilometers from our planet, the spacecraft briefly touched the asteroid’s surface with an outstretched arm, throwing nitrogen gas puffs into the surface.
This hit the material in the arm, which was then collected inside the spacecraft – so much, in fact, that it was almost unable to close.
Fortunately, it did, and now the spacecraft is preparing to leave the asteroid in March 2021, returning to Earth with those valuable evidence in September 2023.
4. The “belly flop” of the starship
Anyone who has watched SpaceX in the last decade is no stranger to their impressive achievements – but a year-end launch was probably one of the best so far.
On December 9, the company successfully flew its prototype Mars vehicle, known as the Starship, at the highest altitude so far, tracking more than 12 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
The vehicle, called the SN8 (or serial number 8), was successfully launched and glided in the air before turning 90 degrees and performing a “belly flop” back to Earth, simulating a future return. from orbit.
SN8 didn’t really catch the landing, but crashed and exploded in an impressive fireball. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk welcomed the test as a major achievement.
In 2021, the company will hope to launch into orbit for the first time with Starship. In the future, launched on top of a larger rappelling called Super Heavy, it is designed to transport 100 people to Mars.
3. Missions on Mars
In July we saw not one, but three missions launched on Mars, all taking advantage of the alignment between our planets that allows the shortest journey every 26 months.
The first of these was the Hope spacecraft in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Launched on July 19, it was the first interplanetary mission ever launched by the UAE or, indeed, by any Arab country.
Arriving on Mars in February 2021, it is designed to study Martian weather and climate in orbit.
Then, on July 23, we saw China launch its own mission to Mars. Named Tianwen-1, the mission includes an orbiter and a rover, which will try to land at the surface by April 2021.
Last but not least, NASA’s Perseverance rover was launched on July 30. Scheduled to attack Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, the rover will conduct one of the largest life searches on Mars to date.
2. Hayabusa2 returns home
The second place of this year’s Space Cup was the incredible Japanese mission Hayabusa2, which successfully returned samples of an asteroid to Earth in December.
The spacecraft – the successor to the Hayabusa1 mission to the asteroid Itokawa in the early 2000s – had launched on December 3, 2014, in a mission to collect material from an asteroid called Ryugu millions of kilometers from Earth.
After successfully removing the material from the surface twice – including once from an artificial crater it made – the spacecraft left Ryugu at the end of 2019.
After a voyage of more than a year, the spacecraft successfully gave up the capsule containing samples of Ryugu on December 6 this year.
Scientists from the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) have since opened the capsule, confirming that there are samples of Ryugu inside. Now they are preparing to study them, possibly helping to discover the origin of water – and even life – on Earth.
1. SpaceX launches a new era of private spaceflight
It almost seems like a lifetime now, but in May of this year, SpaceX made good years in operation – successfully launching people into space.
On May 30, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on a test flight called the Demo-2 to the International Space Station (ISS).
The development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft was funded by NASA worth $ 2.6 billion to replace the spacecraft, which was withdrawn in 2011.
But it was not a single launch. On November 15, SpaceX conducted its second human mission – and the first fully operational – called Crew-1, taking four new astronauts to the ISS.
With Crew Dragon operational, the company will now operate regular “taxi service” flights to and from the ISS, as well as missions and for private clients – including actor Tom Cruise.
After many years of waiting, we are now ready for a new era of private human spaceflight. And it was such a great story that you voted it the top story of 2020.
A series of stories caused a stir this year as well, but they failed to get through the first round of voting.
In December, scientists announced the discovery of a potential extraterrestrial signal from our nearest stellar system, Proxima Centuari. Although they are probably not aliens, there are still reasons for emotion.
July saw the return of the British company OneWeb, which wants to launch a mega constellation of satellite internet to compete with the SpaceX Starlink, but has faced bankruptcy.
Scientists have announced rediscovery of water on the moon in October, while in early 2020 we saw a few interesting new solar missions – including Solar Orbiter in Europe – begins.
In November I followed the source of a mysteries Fast Radio Burst (FRB) to a star – a magnet – for the first time. And in July, Comet Neowise he showed us the sky, visible even to the naked eye.
I saw ours too the second interstellar visitor, comet Borisov, opened in March, while the third publication of data from the most detailed survey of our galaxy ever, Gaia.
So all in all, it hasn’t been a terrible year for space. And with some exciting space stories lined up for 2021, there are many more on the horizon …
See you next year!