Science

Missions to the moon and asteroids, phosphine on Venus and SpaceX flights marked 2020 – Outer Messenger

It is time to remember the most important thing that happened in space exploration and astronomy in the top 5 of the star messenger in 2020.

5- The loss of pioneers

Some important figures in the history of space conquest disappeared this year. Al Worden, 88, an American astronaut who orbited the moon on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, died on March 18. Chuck Yeager, 97, the legendary pilot who broke the speed limit in 1947, left us on December 7th aboard the X-1 rocket plane. That year we also ran out of the great Freeman Dyson (96), a British physicist and thinker who died on February 28th. Most important to Brazil was the death of 70-year-old João Steiner, one of the giants of Brazilian astronomy. None of them have been victimized by Covid-19.

4- Phosphine on Venus

This one would be high on the list if it wasn’t so controversial. In September, a group led by Jane Greaves of the University of Cardiff in the UK announced the detection of phosphine in the clouds of Venus at levels incompatible with known processes – except perhaps microbial life. The result was soon captured by several questions, and in the end it turned out that the data processing had failed. Re-analysis maintained the presence of phosphine, but in much lower amounts. The secret is waiting for new chapters in 2021.

3- Hayabusa2 and Osiris-Rex

It’s been a great year for asteroid science. On October 20, the American probe Osiris-Rex landed quickly on the asteroid Bennu and took a handful of samples from its surface to bring it back to Earth in 2023. The Japanese Hayabusa2 mission later delivered samples from the asteroid Ryugu via a capsule. The landing took place on December 5th in the Australian desert, and the material is believed to help reveal many of the secrets of how the solar system was formed.

2- China on the moon, round trip

The Chinese also had a good year for their space program, running the Chang’e-5 lunar mission between November 23 and December 16. The boldest part was promoting landing and take-off and bringing samples of the lunar surface – something that hadn’t happened with the Soviet Luna-24 probe since 1976. In addition, the project served as evidence of the architecture that could bring Chinese astronauts to the satellite over the next decade.

1- USA returns to manned flights

Since 2011, with the departure of space shuttles, Americans have not seen a manned launch from their own country. It happened twice in 2020 by the SpaceX company. The Crew Dragon capsule ended its testing phase on a flight that began May 30 with two astronauts. The company then started a new mission and brought four crew members to the International Space Station on November 15th. It marks a milestone for the US after nearly a decade of no independent access to space and for the world that first undertook private space flights and ushered in a new era in space exploration.

This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.

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