In 2017, a big year for science, we learned from cosmic discoveries

In 2017, a big year for science, we learned from cosmic discoveries
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Our Universe is unfathomably large — billions of years old, billions of light-years across, and filled with hundreds of billion of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars and planets. It often is beyond the reach of our instruments and our minds. Nonetheless, driven by curiosity, each year we make discoveries that expand our view of it, surprise us and help us to understand our place within it.

The big event of 2017 was the collision of two neutron stars in a relatively nearby galaxy, 140 million light years away. Such events are commonplace, happening many times a day, yet this was one was special because for the first time, the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time that the cataclysmic event created. LIGO alerted astronomers, and GW170817 became the most well-studied astrophysical event, viewed with radio, infrared, visible, x-ray and gamma-ray “eyes.”

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Here is but one thing we learned: most, if not all, of the heaviest elements in the periodic table, e.g., gold and platinum, were made by colliding neutron stars.

 

Of course, LIGO thrilled us in 2016 with its announcement that it had detected gravitational waves from colliding black holes; this past December, three American scientists (Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of Caltech, and Rainer Weiss of MIT) were honored with the Nobel Prize for that discovery.

Closer to home, in October we were surprised by the first interstellar asteroid ever seen. We are used to asteroids — debris left over from the formation of our solar system — visiting us. In fact, the PanSTARRS1 telescope on Haleakala that discovered Oumuamua (for “scout”), as it is now officially known, searches for near-Earth objects that are potentially Earth-threatening. Oumuamua is not bound to our sun; it flew in from the direction of the Lyra constellation, passed between Mercury and the sun, and flew out again in the direction of the Pegasus constellation.  

As large as an aircraft carrier and similarly shaped, Oumuamua reminded us that we are connected to the rest of the cosmos. Our solar system likely has shed asteroids and even planets that have flown by other stars with planets, and four NASA spacecraft — Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 — have left our solar system. The Voyagers carry the Golden Record of sounds recorded from Earth that Carl Sagan and his team put together to introduce us to the larger Universe.

It has been more than 20 years since we discovered the first exoplanets (planets orbiting around other stars). NASA’s Kepler satellite has been the exoplanet workhorse, having discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets and 600 planetary systems. Astronomers have identified around 10 exoplanets in the habitable zone. Last year’s big news was the discovery of the TRAPPIST 1 system, seven terrestrial-like planets orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years away. Five of the seven planets are similar in size to Earth and three are in the habitable zone, the sweet spot where liquid water —and hopefully life — can exist. We are well on our way to answering a very big question: Are we alone?

Moving to the far reaches of the Universe, the most distant quasar seen yet was discovered last year. The light we see began the journey to us when the Universe was only about 700 million years old.  It presents us with a mystery: How did the billion-solar-mass black hole that powers this quasar form so early in the history of the Universe?  (All galaxies, including our Milky Way, have massive black holes at their centers and go through an early “quasar phase” when their black holes shine brightly because of infalling matter.)  LIGO and other gravitational-wave detectors coming on line in the future should shed light on this question.

While the great American eclipse of 2017 was not a surprise and did not lead to any startling discoveries, millions of Americans — including me — were awed by it as the path of totality traversed the United States from Oregon to Georgia. In this amazing natural phenomenon, the moon nicely fits over the sun and blocks its light, allowing us to look directly at the sun without being blinded and view its beautiful corona.

The corona of the sun is much hotter (millions of degrees) and wispier than its surface, extending many solar radii beyond the disk of the sun. The corona is responsible for much of the sun’s activity that impacts our planet, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and how the corona works is still a mystery. Later this year, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, which will orbit the sun on a highly elliptical path that will take it inside the sun’s corona — really! — more than 20 times to make measurements that could solve some of mysteries of the corona.

Science is now a global activity that the United States no longer dominates. But as these discoveries illustrate, we continue to lead. Our success has involved three critical elements: thinking bold, throwing deep and sticking with it.

The LIGO Nobel Laureates were bold enough to think that you could detect a change in distance of one-thousandth the size of a proton between two mirrors separated by four kilometers. The NSF threw deep when it invested close to $1 billion over 25 years to build LIGO. And NASA stuck with it when Hubble had initial mirror problems, and more recently when it found a work-around to keep Kepler producing science after two gyros failed at the end of its four-year planned mission.  

Certainly, cosmic discoveries help us to understand our place in the Universe, but they also inspire and awe us, young and old.  

Michael S. Turner is a theoretical cosmologist who coined the term “dark energy” in 1998. He is the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, and is the former assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences for the National Science Foundation.