We’ve reached the end of 2021, and this is the last episode of the year. Let’s look back at the big space events of the last year and talk about what we’re looking forward to in 2022.
Tornadoes in St. Louis area leave at least 7 people dead (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Vigils honor 6 Amazon workers killed in tornado (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Mars Ingenuity Helicopter (NASA)
Mars Perseverance Rover (NASA)
Tiangong space station (Wikipedia)
Japanese billionaire to ISS New space tourist videos show Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s life in orbit (Space.com)
Antarctica Eclipsed (NASA Earth Observatory)
Comet Leonard in outburst, again! (EarthSky)
Galaxy Discovered With No Trace of Dark Matter (SciTechDaily)
Overlooked Exoplanet Found by Citizen Scientists (SETI Institute)
TESS Exoplanet Mission (NASA)
Communications problem delays JWST launch (SpaceNews)
Solar and Lunar Eclipses Worldwide – 2022 (timeanddate.com)
Psyche (NASA JPL)
Ariane 6 (Arianespace)
Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services
Fraser: AstronomyCast, Episode 625, 2021 wrap-up, looking forward to 2020. Welcome to AstronomyCast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Dr. Gay: I am doing well. It is a weird, weird year, and it just keeps staying weird, so we’re gonna do a retrospective on the weird and look ahead to the weird, I think.
Fraser: Yeah, absolutely. I think I hoarded all the weather weirdness earlier in the year, and you came in with fury just in the last couple of weeks with a tornado tearing your town apart. Glad you’re safe.
Dr. Gay: Yeah, we were completely fine. All of my friends – completely fine, just a whole lot of mess to clean up. And, we had a high wind event afterwards that blew most of the mess away. Sorry, everyone east of us.
Fraser: Yeah, it’s pretty terrible. You had an Amazon warehouse demolished in your town, but there’s just this scar across –
Dr. Gay: Kentucky.
Fraser: – I think it’s 400 kilometers, yeah, where the storm passed and unleashed, I think, 70 separate tornado events in the area, at least 100 dead, hundreds injured, the property damage is incomprehensible, so I’m really glad that you, Kyle, your family, your friends, and everybody working with you got through this unharmed, and here’s to a future – that’s it for tornadoes hitting your town now for a while, I hope, because that was pretty scary.
Dr. Gay: It’s about every eight years, we get one. Eight years ago, we had one that actually went two blocks that way past us, and there was a Facebook post along the lines of “If you don’t hear from me, here’s where to look for my body.” So, yeah, it’s the Midwest. You just have to take it on the chin, I guess, and keep going.
Fraser: All right. So, on that note, we’ve been through 2021, and this is the last episode of the year, so let’s look back at the big space events of the last year and talk about what we’re looking forward to in 2022. So, we’re just looking at space and astronomy. 2021 was pretty amazing, with possibly the best news happening after we recorded this show. So, there was a weird little gap where there’s gonna be a giant uncertainty and people listening to this episode will watch in real time, but we’ll get to that in a second. We’ll include that in our 2022. So, what are some of the big events that you were excited about this year? Why don’t you offer one, and then I’ll do one?
Dr. Gay: There was a helicopter that didn’t crash and burn the way it really thought it would based on my RC airplane experience. That little helicopter is just doing an awesome job. So here, I’m talking about Perseverance and Ingenuity, which landed and are now trapsing their way around in a really cool floodplain and taking in minerals we haven’t seen before.
Fraser: Yeah, Perseverance. I think that is definitely the biggest news of the year so far, depending on what happens with James Webb and if it’ll launch. But, Perseverance – you have twin of Curiosity, but it has landed in the most interesting place possibly on all of Mars, a place that was clearly acted upon by water for vast periods of time, and it is right in the heart of it, and it is equipped with this helicopter to prove that helicopters can fly on Mars this time around. Maybe in the future, you’ll see it doing more science work and assisting the rover itself. How great a job has Perseverance been doing so far?
Dr. Gay: It’s amazing. The first rock it tried to dig into, it picked entirely the wrong rock, and it just ended up creating a crumbly mess instead of collecting samples, and I think all of us had a moment of [gasps], but the next rock it dug into, it was able to successfully collect the sample, and it’s been collecting samples ever since, and what’s amazing is it landed next to basically – I’d say a no man’s zone, but it’s a robot, so a no rovers zone, I guess, that was just too hazardous sandtrap-wise to try and go through, and because of Ingenuity, they were able to successfully explore it by having Ingenuity cut across the dangerous sand to the other side. It’s a Disney buddy movie just waiting to happen.
Fraser: Yeah, that’s awesome. Now, Perseverance wasn’t the only spacecraft to send to Mars this season. We also had the Chinese Tianwen spacecraft and the lander, as well as United Arab Emirates sent their Hope mission to Mars, so you got a huge collection of spacecraft arriving at Mars at the same time, and it was great to see pictures from the Hope mission, but also, this unique perspective on Mars coming from the Chinese rover, which has a different suite of instruments on board than Perseverance and Curiosity.
Dr. Gay: And, I think that the news has largely ignored the Chinese rover simply because it isn’t the same shiny, pretty pictures that we’re getting out of NASA, and they’re not all in the public domain, so we essentially have to wait for the Chinese scientists to release an image here, an image there, but it’s out there in one of the geologically more interesting areas of Mars, near where we’ve been able to see – with the Insight mission – various quakes going off in an area where there could be – I wouldn’t say active volcanism, but recently maybe active volcanism. And so, we have all these different perspectives right now.
Now, the one thing, though, that I think the press has picked up on is China still has their rover on the far side of the Moon, and it recently spotted a boulder off on the horizon, which is one of the least scientifically interesting but most amusing on Twitter discoveries of the year.
Fraser: Yeah. Well, it looks like a cube on the horizon. I forget how far away it is – tens of meters away from the rover – and from that perspective, it looks like a cube. I’m sure when it gets close, it’s gonna look like a rock, but so far, it looks like a cube. The other thing that’s been incredible – this is a piece of news that actually just broke just in the last couple of days, and I actually think it’s probably the most important piece of news that’s come out of Mars this year, and this is that the European ExoMars mission has detected significant amounts of water on the bottom of the Valles Marineris trench on Mars. Did you hear about this?
Dr. Gay: I heard about it, but I don’t know as many details as you, I suspect. I personally have been doing things like following – they figured out Sputnik Planitia, but before we get to that, let’s take a look at the bottom of a valley.
Fraser: Yeah. So, the ExoMars was able to scan the regolith at the bottom of the – I forget how you describe – how do you say it?
Dr. Gay: The chaos terrain?
Fraser: Yeah, it’s this chaotic terrain near the Valles Marineris, which is the deepest valley on Mars, and really the deepest valley in the entire solar system, and what they found was they were able to detect the presence of hydrogen and oxygen coming out of this regolith, and they calculate that there could be up to 40% of the material in this area is water. And so, down at the bottom of a valley, at a place where the atmosphere is thicker, you’ve got a large amount of water where you’re protected from cosmic rays. It’s kind of like the perfect place to go explore, maybe even set up some kind of long-term habitat on Mars.
Dr. Gay: It sounds amazing, and it’s really starting to feel like the more instruments we use to look at Mars, the more different ways we discover water. It looks like a desert, but it’s a desert the way Antarctica is a desert. There’s still glaciers. They’re just buried.
Fraser: Yeah. So, we had some other launches of some other spacecraft in 2021. We had Lucy, DART – what else is there?
Dr. Gay: And, those are really the big planetary missions where we can now look forward to, in several years, finally getting to see what these Trojan objects are leading and trailing Jupiter – not at the same time, it’ll take a while to get between those two points, but these are collection areas for objects that have come in from the outer solar system and kind of gotten trapped there. It is a temporary place, so whatever is there hasn’t been there very long and hasn’t hopefully been dynamically changed very much by where it is. So, that’s going to be a completely new set of data on some of the most interesting and least studied objects in our solar system. And then, DART’s just gonna go push something.
Fraser: Yeah, for science!
Dr. Gay: Science! It’s my favorite story in terms of giggleworthiness. There is a perfectly harmless asteroid that has a moon going around it, and we can see exactly how long it takes this moon to go round and round, and we’re gonna give it a push with a spacecraft, and that should change how long it takes it to go round and round by about 10 minutes. And so, this is the kind of thing where we are in no danger, we cannot put ourselves in danger, and we get to move a rock, we hope. It could be an OSIRIS-REx kind of consistency, in which case we just go join the ball pit of rocks, but that’s still science, and it’s awesome. It’s just awesome. I wanna giggle every time I think about it.
Fraser: So, we had a lot of really interesting spaceflight happen this year as well. So, the Chinese launched their own space station, Tiangong.
Dr. Gay: Yes. They’ve had multiple crews go to it as well.
Fraser: Yes. They had the first Chinese female spacewalk. We saw both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin finally launch human beings on a suborbital trajectory, which was quite impressive. SpaceX launched a crew of four out into high Earth orbit.
Dr. Gay: And, they did science, and they were commercial flight, not NASA flight.
Fraser: It really feels like 2021 is the year that space tourism legitimately showed up.
Dr. Gay: Yes, and it showed up to the point where the FAA is like, “Okay, we’re no longer giving y’all wings” because for a while, there were commercial space astronaut wings that were created to incentivize people going to space, and now, it’s sort of like, “And, you get a wing” –
Fraser: Everybody gets wings.
Dr. Gay: – and with so many people getting wings, they’re taking them away. Instead, you now just get your name listed starting in 2022 on a website, so, kudos for spending millions of dollars to go to outer space. Here’s your name on a website.
Fraser: And, some pretty cool names – William Shatner went to space, the daughter of Alan Shepard went to space, obviously, the billionaires went to space – boring.
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: And then, you had the Japanese billionaire just flew to the International Space Station and is frolicking on the station as we record this episode. It is quite joyful to watch him play on the space station and have such a good time. I am a little jealous, I gotta say.
Dr. Gay: The poor guy basically bought the first starship flight to go around the moon and pledged that it was going to be filled with artists, and probably expected to be flying by now, and this is a reasonable second. It’s a reasonable second – maybe.
Fraser: Now, what about astronomy in 2021? We had a couple of observational stuff, but nothing that I was able to reach. We had a total solar eclipse that was only visible from Antarctica. There’s a comet, actually, in the sky right now that could be visible to the unaided eye in the next couple days.
Dr. Gay: It is not yet.
Fraser: Not yet.
Dr. Gay: There was NEOWISE. We have to remember NEOWISE.
Fraser: Was that this year, or was that the year before?
Dr. Gay: I don’t know. It’s all blursday, actually.
Fraser: I know, it really is. It’s totally blursday. But, I think that we got a lot of really interesting, great data on supermassive black holes, there was a lot of interesting developments in dark matter, there was some incredible imagery taken by a lot of these telescopes from Hubble, like Hubble went offline and then came back online, which was great.
Dr. Gay: That was terrifying.
Fraser: Yeah, we lost all the great images. But, I think the field that pushed the furthest this year was in the field of radio waves.
Dr. Gay: Yes. I do have to pause, though, for a moment and say for a lot of people, it was the return of Aurora Borealis. The Northern and Southern Lights finally came back, the sun is getting active again, it’s only gonna get better with time, but we need to acknowledge that mid latitudes, when they didn’t have clouds, were actually able to enjoy the sky at night with beautiful, beautiful things, including STEVE, which people keep saying they’ve understood.
But, you’re right, it really has been an amazing year for professional researchers working to understand active galactic nuclei, looking for planets – heck, we found a planet in another galaxy, and galaxies without dark matter, pointing to dark matter has to be real, and not gravity. The theorists are actually winning this year.
Fraser: Astronomers have found planets of ever more increasing speed around their stars. They found one that goes around its star every eight hours, which is pretty mind-bending.
Dr. Gay: And, we’ve also found them at distances we didn’t think they belonged at. There was a binary system that a massive, 10-Jupiter-sized planet was found hanging out where it would be the outer part of the Kuiper Belt in our own solar system.
Fraser: Yeah, and you’ve got this start that shouldn’t have planets with a planet that shouldn’t exist at a distance that we have never seen before, and it’s all there, no problem. It all exists. But, it’s funny – it’s kind of hard to now go like, “Ooh, let’s talk about the planets that have been discovered” because there have been thousands.
TESS has just been turning up hundreds and hundreds of planets, the Kepler data still turning up planets, plus all these other ground-based observatories have been turning up planets as well. I hate to say it, but I now no longer even read the press release when someone announces a discovery of a planet. I’ll skim the title, but I won’t generally go any deeper because there’s just so many planets now.
Dr. Gay: I’m waiting for the one that says, “And this list contains the 5,000 of the confirmed planets” because we’re just edging up – I feel like we’re two or three publications away from it, and being able to say that we’ve gone from nine to eight to 5,000 known planets is kind of awesome.
Fraser: Yeah. Right now, we are at 4,884 planets known, with another just shy of 8,000 candidates, and of those, 3,600 are actually planetary systems with multiple planets in it, so, just to think that we are at this point now in the process of knowing of so many planets, it’s actually incredible. All right. Let’s address the elephant in the room.
Dr. Gay: JWST, yeah. So, one of my more on-brand tweets that I spotted was last night, it was announced that the press conference about the launch date for the delayed telescope was delayed, and as we went into recording this episode on December 17th at 4:30 Eastern Time, we still don’t have an update. Last we heard, there was a communications issue between JWST and its rocket. They were pushing for a launch on December 24th. The European Space Agency had a tweet that has subsequently been deleted confirming launch on the 24th.
Rumors on the internet – because of course there’s rumors on the internet – are that NASA wanted a big announcement and ESA just jumped the gun, but NASA needs to read the room. We are done with big announcements. We just want news in real time. We want past this pain. Rip the band-aid off.
Fraser: Yeah, I’ve been really enjoying the updates on James Webb. We found out when the booster arrived. We found out when the upper stage arrived. We found out when the telescope arrived. We found out when they unboxed the telescope, when they mated the telescope to the upper stage, when they stacked it on the booster, enclosed it in fairing, every step, when it was fueled. It’s been great to follow each play by play as we lead up to this momentous event, and there have been delays for sure.
Dr. Gay: And, there have been things that went wrong.
Fraser: Things that went bump.
Dr. Gay: Things that went sproing! Yeah, so, this is a Schrodinger’s telescope. It may or may not launch in 2021. Once it does launch, there’s going to be – they’re calling it 30 days of terror. My guess is it’ll be closer to six weeks of terror and a lot of strung out, potentially drinking heavily astronomers. I’m not going to the AAS meeting this year because…because plague –
Dr. Gay: – but I’m really, really sad I’m gonna be missing all of the gossip associated with this telescope, assuming it does launch prior to AAS, because I’m sure everyone’s going to be trying to find out information that nobody has.
Fraser: Yeah. We’re not going. We’re not sending anyone to any of these events, so we’re gonna watch it all online with the rest of you, but here’s to a smooth, safe launch of James Webb and for it to reach its perfect orbit and travel safely and easily out to the L1 Lagrange point.
Dr. Gay: So, as astronomers, we’re not supposed to be superstitious – it’s just one of those things – but my great-grandma always said – and, she ended up having to elope, so I’m gonna go with this – great-grandma always said a bad wedding leads to a good marriage, and here, I’m really hoping that a bad mission prep really leads to an excellent science mission.
Fraser: Absolutely. All right, well, let’s cast our eyes forward now into 2022, and what are some events that you are looking forward to in the next year?
Dr. Gay: So, skywise, there’s really nothing awesome going on. There’s annular eclipses and partial eclipses in places that aren’t thrilling for the sun. There’s gonna be two lunar eclipses that we can see from here in North America, but just nothing super stands out other than the eternal hope for an amazing solar flare that does no damage, but looks magnificent. Behind that, I’m gonna be keeping an eye on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Rubin Observatory.
It looks like, according to the latest information, that they’re not expecting to be fully commissioned to do science until 2023, but I’m hoping that we’re gonna start to see more and more information coming out of it with the science centers going online, with full instrumentation integration going on. I know that they’re working on testing. I wanna see that first “not fully functional, but showing that the system actually delivers signal to the computers” data. I wanna see that.
Fraser: Yeah. So, some of the big events that are coming up – obviously, the biggest one, I think – I don’t know if it’s the biggest one, but there’s been a couple that we have all been waiting for. One is we’re gonna see the test flight of the Artemis. We’re finally gonna see the Space Launch System fly, probably in February, and it’s gonna be carrying the Orion capsule, it’s gonna go out beyond the moon, it’s going to follow a trajectory that’s roughly similar to Apollo 8, bring the capsule back to Earth –
Dr. Gay: You have so much faith.
Fraser: I’m just stating what we’ve been told. I’m not including my own criticisms and what I really think. So, we’ll see.
Dr. Gay: I read earlier today it looks like they’re gonna have to swap out one of the engines on that.
Fraser: Oh, no. Okay. But still, there aren’t a lot of things left to do. We’ve seen a full-fire test of the whole rocket, we’ve seen tests of the capsule, everything has been stacked up, so there isn’t a lot left to do in order to launch this monumental rocket. But then, as a completely different paradigm, we saw the test of Starship flying to 10 kilometers and landing, finally, after many of its brothers exploded, and so, we’re gonna see in theory – we’ve been told early on in the year we should see the first orbital flight of Starship, a fully reusable two-stage rocket – monster rocket.
Dr. Gay: Monster rocket. These are amazing. The folks at NASA Spaceflight – their tank watchers are always out there looking for every little change, and progress is being made. The one thing I think we’re all nervous about is there’s rumors of Raptor engine delivery issues, but if they can get everything going and launch one of those giant boosters with a Starship atop, that opens a whole new era for spaceflight.
Fraser: Yeah. We’re gonna see the launch of the Psyche mission, which is going to be sending a spacecraft to a metal asteroid, possibly the core of a destroyed planetoid. The Indians are gonna take another crack at landing on the Moon with Chandrayaan-3, which is exciting. The last time, their lander crashed, and it was really unfortunate, and so, this is another shot at it, which I’m really looking forward to. We should see the first launch of the Ariane 6, which is the follow-on rocket to Ariane 5. I think the last Ariane 5 launch is gonna be James Webb, and then we move into the Ariane 6.
Dr. Gay: And, what has me excited is they’re making such good progress at retiring all of the old rockets, both the Russian Soviet-designed ones that had a lot of hydrazine fuel as well as the Chinese ones, and so, we’re finally starting to move to a point where our rocket fuels are a little less deadly. They have the side effect of they are no longer as shelf stable, you can’t fuel them weeks/months in advance, you need to fuel them and keep topping them off until you launch them, but it’s nice to know that it’s gonna be safer for everyone in the space industry to be working here with these rockets.
Fraser: Yeah, and the dream, I think, is complete reusability on these rockets. Musk has said that that’s SpaceX’s plan in the future for Starship, is to actually make the fuel right out of the atmosphere. We’ll see how feasible that is at a large scale to fully feed a rocket all of its fuel, but we’ll see.
Dr. Gay: And Electron – they’re supposed to catch an Electron next year. That’s gonna be wild because they’re gonna use a helicopter to catch the falling stage of a rocket. All right, continue. I’m sorry, I’m just excited.
Fraser: Yeah. Back in 2021, we saw the announcement of the Neutron, which is Rocket Labs’ version of a fully reusable two-stage rocket, and it’s gonna be on the small end. It’s gonna launch 8,000 kilograms, not the 100,000 or whatever the Superheavy and the Starship is going to be able to do, and so, if they can pull it off with a smaller rocket – now, they’re planning that for, I think, ’23 or ’24, but if they can pull that off, then there’s no reason to not make a fully reusable two-stage rocket at this point. There should be nothing else flying at that point. Well, you know what? We’ve gone on quite a long time, and I think we’ve run out of time –
Dr. Gay: It’s true.
Fraser: – so I think we need to wrap this up. Everybody who has listened to us over the years, thank you so much –
Dr. Gay: Thank you.
Fraser: – for following us year after year. I hope 2021 was endurable, I hope 2022 is better, and I look forward to regaling you with adventures of James Webb in the new year. Thanks, Pamela.
Dr. Gay: Anyways, moving beyond those thoughts, I do want to give a special shoutout to a bunch of our patrons over on patreon.com/astronomycast. You allow us to pay Nancy, Rich, Ally, Beth for all the things they do that keep us organized and going and produce our audio, video, and web content.
This week, I would like to thank David, Robert Wenger, Alex Cohen, Scott Bieber, Justin Proctor, Jeff Wilson, Mathias Heyden, Nial Bruce, Gregory Singleton, The Lonely Sand Person, Tim McMackin, Paul L. Hayden, Nate Detwiler, Kenneth Ryan, Cooper, Paul D. Disney, Steven Shewalter, Alex Raine, Benjamin Müller, Karthik Venkatraman, Omar Del Rivero, Doon Munis, Michael Regan, Dean McDaniel, Janelle Duncan, Eran Segev, Mark Widick, NinjaNick, Bongman McBluntsmoke, Moose and Deer, Jeremy Kerwin, Matt Rucker, J. AlexAnderson, Abraham Cottrill, Michelle Cullen, Jim McGihon, Anitusar, Bruce Amazeen, schercm – that’s a whole lot of letters – John, Frode Tennebø, Dwigh Illk, Dustin Ruoff, Philip Grand, Father Prax, Mark Steven Rasnake, Gfour184, Brent Kreinop, Rachel Fry, Kimberly Rieck, and Gabriel Gauffin. Thanks, all of you, so much, especially those of you with pronounceable, fun names. Thank you.
Fraser: Thank you, everyone.
Dr. Gay: Bye-bye.
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