January 23, 2020

2010: The Year in Science


2010 has been a tumultuous year in space and astronomical science. We’ve seen the beginning of a huge transition for manned space flight, as well as a look ahead at what astronomers would wish for if they had their say. What follows are a baker’s dozen of the biggest, weirdest, and most controversial science articles that made our astro-radar in 2010;

10 Years in Space: A quiet landmark occurred on October 25th, 2010: astronauts aboard the International Space Station marked 10 years of continuous human habitation in space. With two shuttle flights to go, construction of the ISS will be complete in the coming year. With any luck, this habitation will become permanent!

Astronomical “Crowd Sourcing” comes of Age: The promise of computers may well be upon us, as citizen science discoveries are increasingly occurring on the desktop. Programs such as Galaxy Zoo have branched out, to include Moon Zoo, Supernova Zoo, and the like. Some of the first data results are returning from Stardust at home, as volunteers comb slides searching for interstellar dust. And earlier this year, a pulsar named PSR J2007+2722 was discovered by the screensaver project Einstein at Home… and we’re old enough to remember when idle computers just displayed flying toasters…

Clues in Astrobiology: Probably the most controversial discovery occurred late in 2010, when NASA researchers announced the possible discovery of life on Earth that is capable of substituting arsenic in place of phosphorous in its DNA. The implication, of course, is that perhaps life in the universe is more robust and diverse than what’s found on Earth. From Earth to Mars and Titan, other tantalizing clues have also popped up, such as the mysterious replenishing source of methane and ethane in the atmospheres of these far off worlds… when our alien overlords reveal themselves, will they prefer an arsenic latte iced with ethane?

SOFIA Takes off: One of the most beleaguered telescopes, airborne or otherwise, saw first light early this year; SOFIA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is now airborne and open for business. SOFIA consists of a 2.5 meter mirror mounted on a perpendicular axis mounted in a converted Boeing 747SP aircraft. First proposed in the mid 80’s, SOFIA has been an on again, off again project due to financial woes. First images included the core of the galaxy M82 and the planet Jupiter, and SOFIA should reach its scheduled capacity of 100 flights a year by 2014.

The Amazing Shrinking Proton: One of the fundamental constants in physics may be in for a revision. None other than the humble proton may be 4% smaller in radius than previously thought. Think 4% is not a big deal? A discrepancy this large is huge in physics, and may point the way towards new fields of research, as well as tweak hallowed constraints such as the Planck constant. This discovery was made by Randolf Pohl at the Max Planck Institute by measuring a stream of slow moving muons as they interacted with hydrogen nuclei.

Of Nobels and IgNobels: This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics (the closest we have to an award in astronomy) went to… wait for it… Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work with graphene. This carbon variant of graphite (found in pencil “lead,” which actually isn’t lead at all) may lead to new materials that could revolutionize industry, as it is stronger than steel and more conductive than copper. And let’s not forget the infamous “anti-Nobels”, the IgNobel Awards… our favorite: the Management Prize shared by Andrea Rapisarda and friends at the University of Catania, Italy for “demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient over time if they adopted random promotions…” Anybody rushing to put this into practice?

Comet and Asteroid flybys: “Follow the minor planets” might well be the battle cry in 2010, as ESA & NASA completed reconnaissance of these tiny worldlets. First, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft completed a close pass of asteroid Lutetia in early July, showing a pock–marked and misshapen world. Then, in early November, the re-christened EPOXI spacecraft passed comet Hartley 2 to reveal a drumstick (!) shaped world that looked like something out of Spaceballs. And for an encore? Watch for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft to reconnoiter two asteroids, starting with Vesta in July, 2011.

The Decadal Survey: Every ten years, scientists compile a wish list, a vision for the direction of astronomy and space science for the coming decade. Topping this year’s list was WFIRST, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope that would probe dark energy and possible terrestrial worlds around nearby stars. But WFIRST wouldn’t launch until 2020 at the earliest; the budget-laden James Webb Space Telescope still has to get space borne in 2014. On the ground, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope was given top priority. This is an 8.4 meter monster that would scan the sky repeatedly with unprecedented resolution. A distant third contender is LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna that would search for gravitational waves by use of three free flying detectors. Noticeably missing in action was the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder series of spacecraft. This list is long, and dollars as always may be short in the coming decade.

Shuttles and tweetups: On a semi-personal note, Astroguyz did manage to attend two NASATweetups: one at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston and the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-132. The vigil for STS-133 didn’t fare as well, as the penultimate launch for shuttle Discovery is now scheduled for February 3rd. If you haven’t made a Tweetup, do make every effort to attend at least one; it’s an experience of a lifetime!

JAXA: Triumph & Tragedy: The Japanese Space program experienced a roller coaster ride of a year, as the comeback kid Hayabusa made its dramatic fiery re-entry over the Australian outback this summer. Preliminary tests of the sample canister show that despite a slew of malfunctions, tiny bits of the asteroid Itokawa did in fact hitch a ride back with the probe. Recently, however, JAXA experienced a set back with the Akatsuki mission, which failed to enter Venusian orbit. All is not lost, however, as the probe is slated to return in its orbit for another shot in… 2017!

Rise of the Nano-Sats: Orbital payloads are getting smaller, and nowhere was this more evident than the launch of FASTSAT with several micro payloads from Kodiak, Alaska in early November. One of these, dubbed NanoSail D, was slated to test solar sail technology in low Earth orbit. Alas, at the time of this writing, it’s not immediately apparent that NanoSail D has ejected properly from FASTSAT; what is it with solar sail platforms that they seem so prone to failure?

Exoplanets Everywhere: The exoplanet discoveries keep on a comin’ as the Kepler and WASP programs continue do crank up the count to its current tally of 510. This year, it seemed almost commonplace to see reports of “fastest, hottest, most Earthlike, etc…” And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, as Kepler has just gotten down to serious business… perhaps the exoplanet count won’t top 1,000 in 2010, but there’s always 2011…

And just what does 2011 have in store? Well, the Decadal Survey for planetary space exploration should be due in the early part of the year. Of course, the space shuttle program should be wrapping up, as NASA faces life with an ISS but no shuttle. Falcon 9 will rendezvous with the ISS, and the Juno spacecraft will herald an unmanned return to Jupiter… and Astroguyz will be right there with you, providing the latest in space news!

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