JWST made it a huge year for astronomical research, but there was plenty of other big (and very, very small) news.
An infrared eye on the universe
The wait was long, with more delays and cost overruns than expected – but after the final release Last year, JWST gently eased its way through the complicated rollout process. In July, its first results were announced, with five stunning images released to the world. Since then, there has been one major advance after another.
Probably JWST’s most significant achievements were in its observations back to the dawn of time, seeing the first stars and galaxies. Indeed, some of the galaxies JWST has found appear to have formed so soon after the Big Bang that they may challenge the standard model of cosmology. Whether this will require a fundamental revision of our ideas about the early universe or just some more precise dating remains to be seen.
The most powerful space telescope ever launched has also transformed our view of objects within our Galaxy, even within our own solar system with unique views of Jupiter and Titan. His early observations of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains at least seven rocky worlds, some within the habitable zone, tease the possibility of even bigger discoveries to come.
The Pillars of Creation star-forming region looks like a hand reaching out to grasp the stars in this JWST image. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI).
Particles within particles
Although the heavens got the attention, a lot happened in subatomic science this year. Ten years after the discovery of the Higgs boson using the most powerful machine on Earth, much more modest devices have revealed a related quantum excitation known as the axial Higgs mode.
Evidence also emerged for a mysterious fourth type of neutrino. However, for the exciting “that can’t be right” feeling we’ve all come to know, and in some cases love, from quantum mechanics, it’s hard to beat the discovery protons contain quarks heavier than the proton itself.
Safety From The Skies
Earth may have become a more dangerous place through human activities such as warfare, but this was a year for progress in dealing with external threats. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) proved that it was possible to substantially alter an asteroid’s orbit by slamming a spacecraft into it, shortening Dimorphos’ orbit around the larger asteroid Gemini by 32 minutes better than expected.
The work gives us a potential tool for when we discover asteroids large enough to cause serious damage on a path to Earth. However, to deal with incoming threats, we need to be able to detect them – and there has been progress on that front this year as well. In November, a small asteroid burned up over Canada, something that has happened billions of times before. This time, however, NASA got ahead of it and predicted its impact location, at least on the continent.
We also found three potentially dangerous asteroids lurking in our planetary blind spot – the Sun’s glare – including the largest new detection in eight years.
Once again, humanity seems determined to make up for whatever threat we can eliminate, with yet another Long March rocket plummeting back to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry.
Fusion Is Coming… Finally
After decades of promise, significant progress has been made to make controlled nuclear fusion a viable energy source. In September, The Korean Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research device proved it could do 100 million °C The plasma used in most fusion research is purer and more stable than previously encountered. It is hoped that this will enable ITER, currently under construction, to demonstrate the viability of a commercial fusion plant.
Then in December, the National Ignition Facility announced that they had fired lasers at hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium to fuse them together, releasing more energy than the lasers provided.
Unfortunately, these developments were widely reported in ways that could lead people to believe that practical fusion is closer than it is. Although the NIF produced more energy than the lasers provided (for less than a billionth of a second), there are huge inefficiencies in both powering the lasers and converting the heat output into electricity. Generating enough electricity to make the system self-sustaining, let alone powering a city, is still decades away.
We really are going back to the moon… And maybe
Politicians have been talking about people returning to the moon for decades, so it’s easy to be cynical. However, the successful Artemis I mission shows that it is finally going to happen. Although many robotic craft have been sent into orbit or landed on the Moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972, Artemis is different.
The Orion spacecraft that completed its mission last week is capable of carrying humans safely and is scheduled to do so in eighteen months. There have been many delays in the process, and there will likely be more, but there now seems little doubt that astronauts will make a lunar flight soon. After that, the landing is scheduled for 2025, which should set the stage for long-term bases capable of extensive research, eventually picking up where Apollo left off.