Astronomy and Space 2019 – Highlights

Astronomy and Space 2019 – Highlights
A northward view in May 2010 of the tracks taken by the Opportunity rover on its trek to Endeavour crater.

We've had another year of exploration and discoveries, achievements and celestial delights, celebrations and farewells. Here are my choices of notable events in astronomy and space in 2019.

  • New Year's Day: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visited the Kuiper Belt object that had been called Ultima Thule, but was later renamed Arrokosh. The 2-lobed body is the most distant body body ever studied by a probe.

  • January 3: The Chinese Chang'e 4 mission was the first spacecraft ever to land on the far side of the Moon. A lander and rover have been surveying the area around the Von Kármán crater.

  • January 21: A total lunar eclipse let observers see the flash of a meteorite hitting the lunar surface. Although meteors are common, usually the bright background of the Moon hides the flash.

  • February 2: Carnegie astronomer Scott Sheppard, looking through images of the outer Solar System taken by his team, found an object 140 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is. Previously they'd found one 120 times farther out and nicknamed it Farout. The new most distant object has been dubbed FarFarOut.

  • February 13: NASA officially ended the Opportunity rover's mission after 15 years on Mars. They'd been unable to make contact after the dust storm of 2018.

  • February 21: Hayabusa2, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) mission to asteroid Ryugu, touched down on Ryugu to collect a sample. It did so again in July, and the spacecraft set off for home on November 13.

  • April 10: Galaxy Messier 87 contains a black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), made up of eight radio observatories, imaged it in 2017. Two years of computer analysis later an image was released. We see the black hole's shadow and a bright ring where the intense gravity bends light.

  • April 19: Jerrie Cobb, who passed away in April, was an American aviator. In a more enlightened time she could have been an astronaut, being one of 13 women who passed the same demanding tests that the Mercury Seven astronauts did. But NASA rejected them.

  • July 14: In 2019, a comet from another galaxy passed by. Telescope maker and amateur astronomer Gennady Vladimirovich Borisov discovered it, and it's been designated Comet 2I/Borisov.

  • July 20: The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing was accompanied by books, films etc. and much interest.

  • July 22: NASA's first flight director, Chris Kraft, was the man with a vision who created and directed mission control. He lived to see the 50th anniversary, passing away two days later.

  • September: Sometime around mid-September – for the first time in 360 years – compass needles began to point due north at Greenwich, the Prime Meridian of longitude. Earth's north magnetic pole slowly shifts, and for a long time now compass needles have pointed west of true north.

  • September 16: Astronomers have detected the most massive neutron star ever, the pulsar J0740+6620. It's just barely within the mass limit that would have made it a black hole. Although more than twice as massive as the Sun, it's only 24 km (15 mi) across.

  • October 7: Scott Sheppard headed the observing team that announced the discovery of 20 previously unknown moons orbiting Saturn.

  • October 8: The Nobel Prize for physics was shared between three astronomers "for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth's place in the cosmos." James Peebles received half "for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology", and the other half was awarded jointly to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sunlike star.

  • October 11: Alexei Leonov, legendary cosmonaut and the first human to walk in space, passed away. He was an accomplished artist and a respected statesman in the international space community.

  • October 18: Two female astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, completed the first spacewalk done by two women. They replaced a failed power control unit on the ISS. From the time NASA selected its first astronauts in 1959, it's taken sixty years for this to happen.

  • November 11: Mercury took five and a half hours to pass across the disk of the Sun in a transit visible from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North/South America. The next transit of Mercury will be in November 2032.

  • November 12: About five million years ago, the Milky Way's supermassive black hole ejected a star from the Galactic Center at high velocity. The star, now designated S5-HVS1, was spotted in in the constellation of Grus (the Crane), moving ten times faster than most stars in our galaxy. It will eventually leave our galaxy and never return.

  • December 12: NASA's Osiris-Rex mission, orbiting asteroid Bennu, chose the target area for sample collection. It's taken a lot of surveying to find a clear area. Even the chosen one is surrounded by large boulders, so navigating the spacecraft will be especially tricky.

  • December 19: Many exoplanets discovered so far are analogous to Solar System bodies. But we don't have anything remotely like the super-puff planets. Researchers presented the results of a study based on Hubble Space Telescope data. The super-puff planets are young gas giants almost the size of Jupiter, but with only 1/100th of the mass. This gives them the density of cotton candy. Three such planets orbit the sunlike star Kepler-51.

You Should Also Read:
Top Ten Astronomy Stories of 2019
Carrying the Fire - book review
Transit of Mercury

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