Space Highlights from 2019
The best moments from an exciting year in space!
The whole world became fascinated with space this summer as we celebrated the golden anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements – humans landing on the Moon. In 2019 we commemorated 50 years of the Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions before the big one on 20 July – the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on lunar soil.
Some of the biggest celebrations took place in America. Iconic images from the mission were projected onto the Washington Monument, NASA ran a real time feed from the Command and Lunar Modules online, whilst in Houston a New-Year style countdown marked the moment of Armstrong’s first step.
Regardless of nation or background, what the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 did was ultimately serve as a reminder to the world of what humankind can accomplish, whilst inspiring a new generation to reach for the stars.
New Year, New Horizons
Apollo celebrations may have dominated space news in 2019, but brand-new discoveries were being made from the first day of year.
NASA’s New Horizons probe began returning data to Earth of its encounter with Arrokoth (previously called Ultima Thule) in the Kuiper Belt, the furthest fly-by ever undertaken by a spacecraft. New Horizons began taking high-resolution images on 1st January with the first medium resolution photos arriving at Earth the following day.
Not to be outdone by NASA’s achievements in 2019, China followed up in a big way on January 3rd. Chang’e-4, consisting of a rover and lander, completed the first successful soft landing on the far side of the Moon.
Unfortunately, not all of 2019’s lunar missions were as successful. Israel’s SpaceIL saw their Beresheet lander crash into the lunar surface in April, a fate also experienced by India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission in September.
Further out into our Solar System, Japan’s Hayabusa2 successfully collected samples from asteroid 162173 Ryugu. The spacecraft left the asteroid in November and is expected to return the samples to Earth next year.
The Impossible Image
As far as deep space discoveries go though, the prize must go to the first-ever image of a black hole.
The photo, previously described as ‘impossible’ by some in the science community, was taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, which consists of eight linked smaller telescopes that can combine data together to create images such as this one. Visible is a bright halo, this ‘ring of fire’ captures the superheated gas just before it falls into the shadow of the black hole in the centre.
The black hole is located in the centre of the M87 galaxy, 500 million trillion kilometres from Earth. It measures 40 billion kilometres across (3 million times the size of Earth) and has a mass of 6.5 billion times that of our Sun.
Dragon Takes Flight
Closer to Earth, the International Space Station had a new visitor in March as SpaceX’s new spacecraft Dragon 2 successfully docked with the station before returning to Earth a week later.
The spacecraft, in a test for future crewed missions, was launched by a Falcon 9 rocket and carried a test dummy “Ripley” to the ISS and back.
It was hoped the success of this mission would lead to SpaceX’s first crewed journey to the ISS later in the year, however those plans were put on hold when the Dragon 2 unexpectedly exploded during a ground abort test in April.
Women in Space
Another new addition to the ISS this year was Christina Koch, an astronaut who has made a habit of making history.
Her mission at the station was originally intended to last the standard six months, however a few weeks after launch, her stay was extended to February 2020 due to reassignment schedules. This was the first time NASA has ever extended a first-time astronauts stay on the ISS with the astronaut already at the station. It will also mean Koch will set a new continuous record for days in space for a woman – her final total of 335 days will beat current record holder Peggy Whitson’s 289 days.
Koch also participated in the first ever all-woman spacewalk in October. Originally due to take place in March alongside Anne McClain, this spacewalk was cancelled due to issues with spacesuit sizing. But a few months later history was made when Koch partnered with Jessica Meir to step outside the station and continue the upgrades to the ISS’ power systems and physics observatories.
About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.