Another post in a series of articles focused on the historic technological and scientific breakthroughs that made 2020 “The Year the Future Arrived.”
Astronomy is the most far out of all the sciences. It’s also the most mind-boggling. From our tiny vantage point here on Earth, the human race is able to peer back almost to the edge of time itself. Using some of the most amazing tools ever devised by mankind such as the Hubble Space Telescope and LIGO, Astronomers are making new discoveries at a breathtaking pace allowing our understanding of the universe to advance at light speed. However, as with the studies of the laws of physics the more we learn about our universe, the more we realize how little we actually know.
In this post, we’re going to stick with astronomical discoveries made outside of our own solar system. In the next installment, we’ll talk about new discoveries here in our own solar neighborhood. For now, without further adieu, here are the top 5 astronomical discoveries of 2020, “The Year the Future Arrived.”
5. Radio Astronomers Discover the True Identity of Fast Radio Bursts
For the past 13 years, radio telescopes around the globe have been detecting powerful bursts of radio waves known as an FRB, for “fast radio burst.” Up until now, these seemingly random bursts of energy have been regarded as one of the most mysterious cosmic events ever detected. The extremely short time of FRBs made them near impossible to pinpoint and analyze. No, it’s not aliens. Astronomers now believe that FRBs come from magnetars — massively magnetic stars — within our own Milky Way galaxy. First discovered in 2007, these super intense radio waves last for only milliseconds and generate more energy than our Sun puts out over millions of years.
4. Astronomers Calculated the Density Of the Universe
How much stuff is out there? Could it be possible to measure the density of matter in the universe? As it turns out, the answer is yes. A team of scientists at the University of California, Riverside, used a tool known as “GalWeight” to measure the mass of a cluster of a gargantuan of galaxies. They then applied their measurements to a catalog of galaxy clusters from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Finally, by combining their measurements with those from the other teams that used different techniques, researchers were able to determine that matter makes up 31.5±1.3% of the total amount of matter and energy in the Universe. For lack of a better way to express the average density of the universe, authors of the study stated, “if all the matter in the universe were spread out evenly across space, it would correspond to an average mass density equal to about six hydrogen atoms per cubic meter.” Give or take. However, astronomers point out that only 20 percent of matter is made of the atoms we know and love. The other 80 percent is actually dark matter, a type of matter which cosmologists don’t yet understand. Maybe next year.
3. Astronomers Detected an Unimaginably Large Explosion
In 2020 Astronomers finally calculated the size of the biggest explosion ever seen (recorded back in 2016) to be five times 10⁵⁴ joules of energy. To put that in perspective, it’s enough energy to disintegrate 100 galaxies the size of our Milky Way (which contains 300 billion stars). That’s just mind-boggling. The record-breaking blast was caused by a black hole exploding a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — roughly 390 million light-years away. As the Supreme Being would say, “BIG BADDA BOOM!”
2. LIGO Detected the Biggest Collision In the Universe
In 2020, astronomers announced the discovery of the biggest collision ever seen (so far). The astronomical wreck happened when an 85-solar-mass black hole smashed into a 66-solar-mass black hole. Post-merger, the resulting black hole weighed 142 times the mass of our sun and is the only known example of an “intermediate-mass black hole.” Astronomers use an amazing system called LIGO to detect gravitational waves (ripples in the fabric of space-time) caused by such events.
1. Astronomers Discovered the Farthest/Oldest Galaxy
In August of 2020, scientists from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune announced the discovery of one of the oldest known galaxies in the universe. The galaxy, named AUDFs01, is about 9.3 billion light-years away from Earth. Give or take. The breakthrough discovery was made using a space-based observatory called AstroSat — a novel multi-wavelength satellite launched by India. This discovery of one of the earliest sources of light in the universe provides important clues as to how the dark ages of the Universe ended.