Space

The Decade in Space Exploration

This decade has perhaps been the most pivotal since the 1960s/70s, in terms of space exploration, both crewed and uncrewed! (to read more about the development of human spaceflight, click here)

We maintained our continuous presence in space, with 41 missions to the International Space Station, ranging in length between 64 days and a year! Britain celebrated the launch of our first astronaut to visit the ISS- Tim Peake- in 2016 (though not the first ever british astronaut, that crown goes to Helen Sharman, who visited the Mir station in 1991). But the majority of the decade was defined by uncrewed spacecraft visiting the planets, moons and asteroids of the solar system…

Mars was the star of the show, capturing people’s imaginations as scientists showed that its similarities to earth can offer an insight into our blue planet’s past and potential future. The Curiosity rover joined the older Opportunity in 2012, and after the tragic loss of communication to ‘Oppy’, Curiosity is left as the sole functional rover there, at least until next year when it will be joined by Perseverance and Tianwen, which launched earlier this year.

The 2010s also saw some cool missions to the outer solar system, with Juno arriving to check in on Jupiter in 2016 and Cassini continuing its orbit around Saturn, transmitting valuable data and performing close flybys of its varied moons- including a dive through Enceladus’ huge geysers, giving away the secrets of its inner ocean- up until its dramatic descent into the clouds below.

Jupiter gets surprisingly complex new portrait | Science News for Students

Beyond the gas giants, 2015 marked the arrival of New Horizons at Pluto after an 11 year journey, becoming the first ever mission to the dwarf planet! Since then it has also visited other objects in the Kuiper belt, such as 2 asteroids that orbit each other so closely that their surfaces have merged! 

Pluto in front of Charon.

Despite being the first to visit these distant worlds, New Horizons isn’t the furthest extent to which humanity has stretched. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to leave the solar system, followed more recently by Voyager 2 in 2018. Both are still active and teaching us about the universe beyond the reaches of the sun’s solar wind, even with a data lag of nearly a day! 

We learnt more not just about our solar system, but the universe beyond- the Kepler mission discovered thousands of exoplanets: some were bizarre worlds, unlike anything in our solar system, tidally locked and orbiting closer to their star than thought possible, and others brought us ever closer to finding an ‘earth 2.0’! Although Kepler’s journey ended in 2018, its data is still revealing surprises, and with the launch of TESS in the same year and CHEOPS in 2019, the future of the exoplanet detection is looking bright! (no wonder seeing as they stare at stars all day!).

With New Gravitational-Wave Detectors, More Cosmic Mysteries Will Be Solved  | Space

From exoplanets offering hopes of finding extra-terrestrial life to the most violent collisions in the universe… the first gravitational waves were detected in 2015, nearly a century after they were hypothesised, once again adding evidence to support Einstein’s theories! But although with that we had seen what happens when two black holes collide, it wasn’t until 2019 that we took our first photo of a black hole! Both of these took years, decades even, of hard work and huge feats of collaboration and engineering- that most people wouldn’t even have dreamt of a hundred years ago.

Black Hole Image Makes History; NASA Telescopes Coordinate Observation |  NASA

Everyday we wake up to a headline bringing exhausting news of the pandemic or yet *another* political catastrophe. But if we can take a photo and do science with an object that covers the same amount of sky as an orange on the moon and look millions of years into the past, then surely we can think ourselves out of this mess!

The decade ended on a high note, with 2020 seeing in many ‘firsts’ in space exploration: the first significant (more than 1g) return of samples from an asteroid by the Hayabusa 2 mission; the first US mission to touchdown on an asteroid; and the first class of lunar astronauts to include women was announced.

Even after the year we’ve had, the 2020s are certainly looking bright, at least in terms of space!

What was your favourite event in space over the past decade?

Read the second part, where I discuss the advancement in crewed spaceflight, here

this is an extended version of a piece I wrote for a school project

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