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The biggest discoveries about space from the decade

Saying that space is a large topic to cover is quite the understatement. While people have been studying it for millennia, there’s still much to learn. With the advancement of technology, researchers and scientists are able to research the universe using new, high-tech methods that lead to exciting discoveries almost every year. Here are the biggest discoveries about space from this last decade.

First interstellar visitor

Asteroid points of light in space taken from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In 2017, a NASA-funded telescope at the University of Hawaii discovered the first confirmed interstellar visitor to come to the solar system. No, not aliens. But there was some buzz that it could have been sent by aliens when it was first discovered.

Oumuamua, as it was named, was a long, cigar-shaped object made of rock and metal. Scientists believe that it came from the star Vega, which is about 25 light-years away. Although Oumuamua was traveling at speeds up to 59,000 miles per hour, it still would’ve taken about 300,000 years to make the journey. The object swung around the sun in September of 2017 and headed back out to space where it made its way toward the Pegasus constellation.

Higgs boson particle discovered

Interior view of Large Hadron Supercollidor particle accelerator at CERN, Geneva
Credit: Maximilien Brice, CERN

For many years, scientists have been using the Standard Model to explain how matter is formed and how it behaves. It states that all matter is made up of basic building blocks called fundamental particles and are controlled by four fundamental forces called bosons. One of the fundamental forces had been just a hypothesis for decades, until now.

The Higgs boson was finally observed in 2012 at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN’s) Large Hadron Collider, helping to confirm the Standard Model. The new research will help scientists better understand how matter gets its mass and interacts with the universe. It earned those researchers the Nobel prize in physics.

First image of a black hole

Space view of large purple outburst of black hole, seen by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory
Credit: NASA/CXC/Curtin University/R. Soria et al.,NASA/STScI/ Middlebury College/F. Winkler et al.

Scientists have known about the existence of black holes for a while, but capturing an image of something that doesn’t allow light to escape is a difficult task; some even thought it impossible. In 2017, a team of ambitious researchers set out to achieve the impossible.

Eight sites around the world all pointed their telescopes to the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. That black hole was chosen because it’s the biggest one known, more than 6.5 billion times heavier than the sun; it’s an active black hole, which means it’s still sucking in matter; and it could be viewed without too much interference from stars and dust. The telescopes had to be precise. Because of the immense distance (M87 is 53 million light years away), one microscopic difference between the telescopes and the image would be distorted.

After 10 days of shooting, 5 petabytes, or 5,000,000 gigabytes, of data was compounded to create the very first image ever taken of a black hole. The picture shows the hot, glowing gasses being sucked into the black hole with a very distinct circular silhouette in the middle.

Evidence of water on Mars and the Moon

Gray photo showing Mars rocks and space lander, the first photo ever taken on the surface of Mars, July 20, 1976
Credit: NASA

In 2009, scientists blasted a projectile into the surface of the moon. While that may seem like a strange thing to do, they believed there was water just beneath the lunar surface and an impact would send up a mixture of debris. They could then study the debris and see if there were any water. That’s just what they did, and that’s exactly what they found.

Knowing that there was water just beneath the surface, scientists continued their search, looking for surface water that could be reached more easily — “Hello, moon colonies!” There had always been extra reflective spots at the moon’s poles. For most of history, scientists just chalked it up to the reflective soil and the way the light hits the craters. Armed with their newfound knowledge, researchers took a closer look. What did they find? Ice! And lots of it. In data published in 2018, both poles, especially the southern pole, had surface ice sitting inside many of the craters.

Lunar water isn’t the only water that was discovered in the solar system this decade. In 2017, NASA found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. No, they didn’t stumble upon a Martian creek but, rather, wet spots and evidence of erosion. The water is so salty that it can possibly turn to liquid form during the warmer Martian summers when temperatures can reach a pleasant -10 degrees Fahrenheit.

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