The best space stories of 2020

In the midst of a pandemic, we still sent astronauts back into space, broke off pieces of two asteroids, stared hard at the sun, and so much more.
A reconstruction of the sunspot  captured by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on January 28th, 2020. The original image was taken in the wavelength of 530 nanometers - in the greenish-yellow part of the visible spectrum–. Researchers modified it to show up red and orange to the naked eye
The sunspot was taken in the wavelength of 530 nanometers - in the greenish-yellow part of the visible spectrum–. Researchers modified it to show up red and orange to the naked eye. NSO/AURA/NSF

There’s no way to sugarcoat it; 2020 has been rough. But despite the stagnation and turmoil on Earth, some researchers and organizations kept their eyes on the skies. Physicists felt ripples from a collision between black holes so big they shouldn’t exist, while astronomers found another black hole sitting just 1,000 light years away—the closest yet. NASA’s InSight probe sensed tremors from marsquakes. The Hubble Space Telescope turned 30, and celebrated its maturity by giving us 30 spectacular new snaps.

But it wasn’t all good news. The year’s end brought one more tragedy with the collapse of the aging Arecibo observatory, leaving Earth a little more vulnerable to space rocks and astronomers wondering what’s next.

Nevertheless, tidings from the heavens and those trying to connect us to it often proved welcome distractions from events down on the ground. Here are a few discoveries and developments that filled us with wonder and reminded us that the future has bright spots to look forward to.

SpaceX launched commercial spaceflight

After years of delays, SpaceX finally did it. The company sailed through the final stages of NASA’s commercial crew qualification program, and in May it flew astronauts to the ISS for the first time. Six months later, it did it again.

These flights were historic. They were the first crewed spaceflights to take off from US soil in nearly a decade, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is the fifth human-rated spacecraft in US history (after Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle). SpaceX is also the first private company to develop the capability to fly people into space, and it doesn’t intend to stop with NASA astronauts. In the coming years, we may see space tourism (for the very rich) finally take off.

Astronomers found phosphine on Venus and then lost it

Alien microbe hunters have long hungered to dig into the Martian soil and see if anything’s living there, but this year a new planet popped up on their radar—at least for a while.

Astronomers studying the clouds of Venus announced the discovery of trace amounts of phosphine, which on Earth is belched out by volcanoes and some organisms. The find caused quite a stir (some groups started thinking about alien hunting missions), but the excitement soon turned to confusion as other astronomers failed to verify the detection. Perhaps next year will bring a clearer picture of what chemicals are and aren’t wafting through Venus’s upper atmosphere.

Fast Radio Bursts demystified

A major astronomical effort of the last decade has been cataloging and identifying the origins of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs)—blasts of radio waves from deep space that last for just milliseconds. Theories included neutron star collisions, the dramatic demise of balls of exotic matter, and even aliens pushing giant spacecraft around the universe with mightier laser beams. But the far-off bursts seemed to appear largely at random, making it hard to pin down any one theory.

That changed this year. Researchers detected a complicated pattern in the repetitions of one bursting source, giving valuable hints about its size and environment. Then one went off in our very own Milky Way, our cosmic backyard. Observations tied the blindingly bright burst to a known source for the first time, a super magnetic neutron star known as a magnetar. Researchers still aren’t sure if all FRBs come from magnetars, but they seem to be able to explain most of the flashes.

Astrophysicists stared directly at the sun

The sun’s prominence in the sky makes it easy to forget that there’s a lot researchers don’t know about our nearest star. In 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe got closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has before, and this year the golden age of “heliophysics” continued. In February, the European Space Agency launched its Solar Orbiter, which won’t get quite as close as Parker, but carries both cameras to study the star’s surface and instruments to feel the solar wind. The world’s largest solar observatory, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, also released its first data. The facility is already using its massive peeper to take a close look at sunspots, and its observations may someday lead to better forecasts of space weather.

NASA looks ahead to the next moon landing

The US space agency launched a major robotic mission to Mars over the summer, but its crewed exploration program continued to race toward its goal of getting humans (including the first woman) to the moon this decade with the Artemis program. This fall, NASA announced that water molecules ever-so-slightly moisten all parts of our natural satellite, even the sunny parts. It would be pretty tough to turn that H2O into a bottle of water, but the discovery raised hopes that additional deposits might be found so that future astronauts may not have to bring all their water from home. NASA also announced a contract with Nokia to build a modest LTE network on the lunar surface—one small step for the terrestrial internet as it accompanies humans out into the solar system. Space explorers need memes too.

Two robotic spacecraft capture pieces of asteroids

We ended the year by bringing two little bits of space closer to Earth. A Japanese probe named Hayabusa 2, which spent a year exploring the asteroid Ryugu, returned to Earth this month and dropped off a souvenir from its celestial journey—precious milligrams of pristine rocks and dust dating back to the early days of the solar system. It was the second time (after the original Hayabusa) that humans collected asteroid fragments and brought them home.

And more asteroid dust is on the way. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission just wrapped up its two years at the asteroid Bennu, during which it found evidence of a soggy past. The visit culminated in a daring maneuver to scoop up a sample from the asteroid’s surface in October. The move ended up being a bit too successful, overstuffing the spacecraft with alien dirt so much that it couldn’t fully shut the sample’s container. But NASA engineers managed to securely stow the cargo—at least a handful of fun-sized bags of M&M’s worth of asteroid—for the long flight home. OSIRIS-REx will return its sample to Earth in 2023, which will hopefully be a better year for planetary scientists, as well as the rest of us.