By Meghna Murali
2017 has been a spectacular year for major discoveries in space science. From the Great American solar eclipse to bidding farewell to Cassini, the year has been flooded with some exciting discoveries. With so many advancements in the field of space science, recalling some of the best discoveries and innovations seems appropriate.
Oumuamua – The first interstellar visitor to our solar system
In October 2017, our solar system had a meeting with an unexpected visitor. The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii spotted a weird space object, about the size of a tennis field, enter our solar system. Astronomers had never seen such a big foreign object in our solar system before. Called Oumuamua, it is the first space object to have entered our solar system from interstellar space. Initially, astronomers considered the object to be a comet. On identification, they saw that the object showed different orbital paths. This led them to conclude that the object belonged to interstellar space. A large number of telescopes were immediately stationed in Hawaii for witnessing Oumuamua. The object had a rocky surface with burnt dark-reddish hue, due to millions of years of radiation from cosmic rays and possessed high metal content. The discovery of Oumuamua was a revolutionary one, as it paved the way to cracking the code to the formation of the other solar systems.
The much anticipated Great American Solar Eclipse
On August 21, 2017, millions of people in the United States were on the streets, praying for clear skies. It was the first time in over a 100 years that a full solar eclipse was seen crossing the United States of America. With the night turning to day, millions of people witnessed the underlying layers of the sun. The marvelous spectacle lasted only for a few moments. People were given special eclipse glasses to witness it. A typical solar eclipse takes place on earth every eighteen months. However, these are difficult to spot in extremely populated areas. The next solar eclipse in the US is expected to take place in the year 2024.
Astronauts discover first ever microbes in space
For the first time ever, astronauts discovered microbes aboard the International Space station. What makes this discovery exciting is the fact that these microbes need not be sent to earth for identification. They can be sequenced in space itself! The genes in Space-3 project members uncovered the first ever microbes to exist in space. Microbes generally survive in harsh and extreme conditions. Peggy Whitson (Biochemist and astronaut at NASA) collected surface samples from the space station. This innovation was a combination of two technologies: miniPCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and MinION. In PCR, the DNA of the microbial samples are amplified to create copies of it. After subjected it to PCR, the samples were then allowed to grow for a few weeks in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. This discovery can potentially solve a lot of medical and health issues associated with astronauts in space.
NASA successfully tests 3-D printed parts to reduce cost of rockets
On 13th December 2017, scientists at NASA successfully tested an RS-25 engine with 3D printed spare parts. The initiative could potentially reduce the cost of the fuel engine of rockets in the future. Due to the feed lines of the propeller and the engines, a rocket may face up and down vibrations. These vibrations are known as pogo effects. The 3D printed parts were named as the pogo accumulator. The object, the size of a beach ball, was used as a shock absorber. The accumulator did this by regulating the oxygen flow to prevent unnecessary vibrations in the rocket. By 3D printing various parts of the rocket, costs were reduced by 35 percent, and production costs decreased by more than 80 percent.
Discovering Super Earth
How wonderful would it be if Earth had a twin? Well, researchers found not one, but three alien habitable planets using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The planet (named as K2-18b) lies in the constellation Leo. The composition of super planets is not very clear. Most of them have a composition that lies between gaseous planets like that of Neptune and terrestrial planets. A research team studied the K2-18b with sophisticated instruments like High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which is an 11.8-foot telescope. With the help of HARPS, scientists were able to calculate the density of the planet. It also helped them to analyse the surface nature of the exoplanet. On analysing the results obtained from HARPS, it was found that the planet had a rocky surface with a thin atmosphere like earth. On the other hand, it is possible that the exoplanet may also have water covered with a shell of ice.
“With the current data, we can’t distinguish between those two possibilities,” study lead author Ryan Cloutier, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets, said in a statement. “But with the James Webb Space Telescope, we can probe the atmosphere and see whether it has an extensive atmosphere or it’s a planet covered in water.”
Two decades since the launching of Cassini, the spacecraft finally went on a collision course towards Saturn in the month of September. It performed a detailed analysis of the planet, its rings, and moons. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has been Cassini’s greatest discovery. According to the observations made by Cassini, Titan showed stable liquid on its surface. Although this liquid was not water, which is required for life to sustain, it resembled the hydrological cycle of the earth. Thus, scientists concluded that Titan had an atmosphere similar to that of the earth.
Featured Image Source: Pexels
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