2015 has been a cracking year for space in the news. Every week a new story caught our attention. While everyone has different favourites, here are my Top 5 for the year!
5. Super Blood Moon
Although lunar eclipses are fairly common, the coincidence of the Moon being as close as it can be (a ‘super moon’) and being in an eclipse is rare. The previous one was in 1982, the next will be in 2033. So if you missed it – you’ve got a bit of a wait! The eclipse was also unusual in that it was the last in series of four, known as a tetrad, that have happened in the last two years. Tetrads are even rarer than super moon eclipses – sometimes going hundreds of years between them. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun to observe and talk to people about it over social media.
4. Alien Megastructures?
OK, OK, maybe this one shouldn’t be on the list, but it’s fun for a number of reasons. Firstly, this story is the tip of a scientific iceberg. We’re reached the point that we’re monitoring so many stars with the Kepler telescope that we’re finding really, really weird things happen more and more often. Two, the discovery itself, which was really that the light from a star, KIC8462852, was going up and down due to something blocking it, was made by amateur astronomers working with the Kepler data. Three, we can sensibly question what alien megastructures would look like in data. Of course more data is being taken, especially in radio but nothing unusual has been found so far. Most people still like the family of comets idea for blocking the light.
3. Space X and Blue Origin (updated!)
Bit of a cheat, since SpaceX made multiple launches this year. And actually, SpaceX probably think 2015 was not a great year for them, with the spectacular Falcon 9 failure on June 28th, as well as failing to land on the sea platform on April 14th following the unsuccessful test in October 2014. But credit them for keeping their “foot on the gas” and coming back with the successful landing on 22nd December! Of course, on Nov. 23, Blue Origin beat SpaceX to the landing punch by successfully piloting their New Shepard rocket back down to Earth following a sub-orbital launch to 100km. And Jeff Bezos got some stick on twitter for emphasizing that SpaceX’s first stage is suborbital. But remember, SpaceX are trying to do something more difficult, even though the first stage doesn’t reach orbit, the lateral speed of Falcon 9 is much higher. Oh and Elon, we really could do without all the people cheering, it’s a launch not a street party. Grump, grump! 🙂
2. Art McDonald (shared) Nobel Prize for determining neutrinos have mass
Is it ironic that an experiment 2km down in a mine should be the second top space story? Not really! The SNO equipment needed to be kept shielded from high energy cosmic rays that would mess up the experiment – going beneath the Earth’s surface is thee only way to do that. On a personal note: having been at Queen’s and having had the pleasure of Art’s guidance and thoughtfulness, I can testify that he really is a wonderful role model. For him, SNO, Dr Kajita, and Super-Kamiokande to receive the recognition they deserve is truly fitting. Plus it’s shown that Canada can compete if we use our unique resources, heavy water being produce by CANDU reactors being one of them, in creative ways! Oh, and who can forget Art explaining neutrino physics with TimBits!
Everyone’s favourite underdog stole the headlines for 2015. The New Horizons fly-by delivered breathtaking image after breathtaking image. Combined with a clever social media strategy, in July it was hard not to miss how this little dwarf planet caught the public’s attention. But even months later, the slow download rate along with improved analysis is still providing new insights into the surface of Pluto. It seems to be far younger and more active than we thought possible. Hearts, mountains of ice 14,000 ft high, weird plain features, the list goes on. And hey, naming features on Charon after Star Trek characters never hurts!
And one sad note for 2015. Leonard Nimoy, forever a fan favourite as Mr Spock, passed away this year, aged 83. He lived long, and prospered! Goodbye Spock!