2016 in space: The waves have it

WASHINGTON — Happy New Year’s Eve everyone.

Last year at this time I was in the Indian Ocean enjoying the stars way down under and couldn’t get out a “Top Space Pick for 2015.” The July flyby of Pluto would have been my pick.

For 2016’s pick, we leave the solar system and enter the realm of the Cosmos. February’s announcement regarding the discovery of gravitational waves is my pick for 2016’s “Top Space Story.”

Ever since humans looked up at the night sky 2.5 million years ago and the invention of the astronomical telescope by Galileo in 1609, almost all information we have gleaned about the universe has come to us in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Literally the entire spectrum — radio waves to gamma rays.

I say “almost all” because we have sent spacecraft to land on planets, comets and asteroids, obtained comet dust and sent humans to the moon. We have recovered over 50,000 meteorites — rocks from space — and specimens from the moon and Mars. All of this has added to our cosmic knowledge.

The detection of gravitational waves was made possible by finally developing the exquisite technology that enabled us to detect the physical warping of space-time by an event. A second event was announced in June 2016 and showed us that more events were going to come our way, that gravitational waves were not a “one and done” occurrence.

Gravitational wave astronomy is now a new branch of humanity’s oldest science. Plans are underway for placing gravitational wave detectors in space and adding a third detection facility in Italy. New discoveries regarding black holes, neutron stars and the Big Bang itself await us. Even more exciting is what we don’t know about that we will uncover. Therein lies the prize of new discoveries and knowledge.

What lies ahead space-wise in 2017? NASA will get a new administrator, and we will see what that means for the country’s space program. There are a number of unmanned missions scheduled to go to the moon in 2017. Also, the U.S. will witness an eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21.

And once again, what we don’t know about in the upcoming space year will be the ultimate prize.

Have a safe and wonderful new year, and we’ll follow the universe together in 2017.

Follow my daily blog whatsupthespaceplace.com to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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