2020 has been a unprecedented year for humanity and even though we all tried to make the best out of a unique global situation, it has mostly been a good year for science. Lets look back and reflect on some of the most interesting events in science during 2020.
1. Phosphine on Venus clouds
In September 2020 scientists announced they had found evidence of the presence of Phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus. This discovery immediately attracted attention for the reason that the only way we, on earth, know phosphine is made is as a bioproduct of life or industrial process. Phosphine is a good indicator when hunting for extraterrestrial life on exoplanets as it signifies the possible presence of life. Later studies have been unable to identify the presence of the gas in the clouds, but that's what the science process should look like; if it's not 100% proven, then there's still room for questioning.
2. Comet Neowise
In late March 2020 the NEO/WISE (Near-Earth-Objects/Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope discovered one of the brightest comets to ever appear on the northern hemisphere. I could be later spotted throughout most of July by naked eye as the sun's energy burned its icy head, leaving gases and dust behind as a beautiful tail. This was a once in a lifetime experience for whoever had the chance to catch a glimpse of the comet as its long elliptical orbit will probably bring it back to the inner solar system in approximately 6,800 years.
3. Osiris-Rex / Hayabusa 2 / Chang'e 5
2020 was the year of sample-return missions around the globe as NASA, JAXA and CNSA were all successful in their missions of retrieving samples from 2 asteroids and the moon respectively.
Nasa's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (Osiris-Rex) successfully landed on asteroid Bennu in October and spent 2 days stowing an abundance of samples from the surface. It actually collected so many samples that some of it escaped on it way back to Earth until its hatch was safely sealed.
Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency sent out its second sample return mission in December 2014 aiming for the asteroid Ryugu.
The spacecraft had a hard touched down but managed to be successful in its procurement of material from the surface of the asteroid. On the 14th of December 2020 the spacecraft entered Earth's atmosphere once again and landed in an Australian desert.
Chang'e 5 is the first mission to bring back samples from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. The lander and ascent vehicle descended on the moon's surface and retrieved samples with a mechanical scoop and drill. Just before launching to meet back with the service spacecraft in orbit, the space probe took pictures of the five-star red flag on lunar soil making China the second nation to plant a flag on the moon.
All 3 missions are very important in our research for understanding the early days of our solar system, how life began and how to deal with threatening asteroids in the future.
4. Water on the moon
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. The flying observatory on board a Boeing 747SP aircraft detected the presence of water molecules in Clavius crater in the southern hemisphere of the moon. It was previously theorized that water could be trapped under the rims of deep craters, but this discovery proves that there is a presence of molecular water on the sunlit surfaces as well. This can be crucial for future manned missions to the moon, but as with every scientific discovery, further research needs to be done.
5. Space X first commercial flight
On the 30th of May Space X launched its Crew Dragon Spacecraft upon its Falcon 9 rocket marking the beginning of a new era for spaceflight as the first company to ever launch a commercial space capsule. The launch was originally scheduled for the 27th of May from Cape Canaveral, Florida but was aborted due to unfavorable weather conditions. The mission drew a lot of attention and sparked the interest of the American population as it was the first spaceflight of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil in nine years. After the success of the mission, Nasa has announced they are beginning a regular cadence of missions with astronauts launching on an American rocket from American soil to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Later in the year, the Space X Crew-1 mission docked with the International Space Station on November 17, bringing 3 Nasa and 1 JAXA astronauts aboard for their 6 month stay on the station.
6. Jupiter and Saturn Conjunction
Just when we thought 2020 was almost over, Jupiter and Saturn, two of the biggest planets in our solar system passed each other in their elliptical racetracks forming a conjunction, or the "Christmas star" as it is also known. This event happens once every 20 years, but this time marks the closest they will ever get for another 400 years. The 2 planets appeared closer and closer to each other culminating on the 21st of December into a bright single star for the naked eye. If you forgot to look up in the night and missed it, there are countless of pictures from around the world where the event was captured.
7. Nobel prize for chemistry awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna for their discovery of the Crispr/Cas9 genome-editing technology
Emmanuelle Charpentier (left) and Jennifer A Doudna (right) were awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry for their discovery of the revolutionizing CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing technology. Charpentier first published her discovery in 2011 and started her collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is used for precise edits in the genome as it allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. It can edit cells for specific functions such as hunting specific viruses and preventing hereditary diseases. The possibilities and/or implications for the future are endless. Being able to locate and modify the genetic code means that we can not only eradicate diseases from newborn babies, but we can also alter their DNA in our preference. We have been genetically modifying life since the dawn of humankind, turning wolves to lovable puppies, inedible bananas to a healthy breakfast, using selective crop farming for a better yield an many others. This discovery makes all that happen in the lab in an easier and faster way.
8. Loss of Arecibo
On December 1 the 305 meter radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico collapsed sending waves of anguish throughout the scientific community. After its long contribution to science and specifically astronomy for 57 years it has finally succumbed to years of deterioration and limited funding. The Arecibo Observatory has been the key instrument for many scientific discoveries such as the discovery of Pulsars, tracking asteroids, finding the first exo-planet and sending out messages to possible extraterrestrial worlds. Farewell my friend, you've done so much for us.