2017 was a huge year for news here on Earth, but astronomers spent the better portion of the year getting pumped about some astronomical firsts that happened in space! As the year comes to a close let’s explore some of the big astronomical firsts in 2017 by asking today’s big question: What did astronomers work on in 2017? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.
While the eclipse may have gotten the most attention by the masses, the science community was also very excited about a bunch of other things happening out there in space. From people breaking records to finding places that remind us of home, there was no shortage of fun stuff to get excited about in the world of astronomy this year.
First of all American astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record for the U.S. astronaut with the most time spent in space, clocking in at a whopping 665 days! Making her the first American female to hold that title. Go Peggy!
There was a major discovery this year that definitely was the first of its kind that has astronomers thinking about big questions that would take us quite far from home. Oumuamua, an asteroid from a distant star system, became the first thing we've observed to visit us from outside of our own solar system. Traveling at about 16 miles per second, this object will soon be out of our solar system and has astronomers excited to see what else they can spot that’s visiting from beyond our little corner of the cosmic neighborhood. There are some folks that even think that this could be an alien spy pod. And this is why there are scientists pointing telescopes at this fast moving object to see if it’s pushing out any radio signals, just in case we’re being spied upon. Unlikely, but better safe than sorry!
Another big first was the discovery of 8 planets orbiting another star, just like we have here. Using NASA data and Google computer learning systems, scientists were also able to find a planet orbiting a star system with 7 other already known planets, bringing the total count up to 8, just like us!
This star system's 8 planets orbit their star in a very dense and tight formation...the furthest planet in that star system is about the same distance as the Earth is to the sun. That means it’s packing 8 planets and a star in about the same space as where the Earth orbits our sun. This makes those distant inner planets way too hot for life to form as we know it.
While astronomy spends a lot of time looking up and away from home, there are a lot of lessons learned that help us better understand the precious world we are lucky to have here. Scientists are busy searching for a place that we could visit, colonize, and grow into eventually like Mars, one of the moons in the outer solar system, or even well beyond our own star system. While looking up and learning more about the myriad of interesting things there are to learn out there, scientists often end up looking back home to appreciate how perfect of a situation we have being the third rock from the sun-with our atmosphere, ocean, and geologic activity.
Astronomy’s lessons help us understand more about what’s out there, but perhaps more importantly they give us perspective on our natural world and help us to appreciate the home we have here on Earth. Despite all of this year’s astronomical firsts, as of now, there’s still no place like home.