By Emily Levesque, University of Washington
Innovation in astronomy requires thinking far ahead, considering what the cutting-edge technology of the next century will mean for how we study the cosmos. Tomorrow’s heroes of astronomy are already hard at work today, imagining new telescopes that will be decades in the making and unveiling new discoveries that will shape our future picture of the universe.
Capturing the brief flash of a supernova or the motion of a tiny comet or asteroid across the immensity of the night sky is no small task. Since the 1960s, teams of innovative astronomers have taken on the herculean job of surveying the entire night sky, using a diverse array of telescopes and tools to painstakingly catalogue everything that we can see.
Early efforts included surveys of the Northern Sky using endless stacks of photographic plates and ongoing observations by large networks of amateur astronomers, willing to dedicate their backyard observatories to long and detailed studies of anything that might be changing in the sky.
Today, teams have launched space telescopes designed to observe every star in the entire Milky Way galaxy and a ground-breaking new telescope in the Southern Hemisphere that will soon begin a 10-year-long campaign to continuously photograph the entire sky every few nights.
With so many large and heroic teams conducting all-sky surveys and achieving marvels of engineering to study gravitational waves and put telescopes into space, it can be easy to imagine that the whole planet shares this dedication to astronomy research.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Asteroids and Comets
One clear and immediate connection between the mysteries of space and life here on Earth are asteroids and comets. These small citizens of our own solar system might one day come close (perhaps even a bit too close) to our home.
Finding and studying nearby objects like these is thus an important part of astronomy. It is crucial part of understanding our solar system and the fate and history of our planet.
Astronomers like Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker built up a long and prolific history of discovering and studying comets and asteroids along with their potential impact. One dramatic example was observed by astronomers and stargazers all over the world in 1994 when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck Jupiter.
More recently, large survey and robotic campaigns have taken up the mantle, with teams of people monitoring the sky, searching for asteroids and comets throughout the solar system, and learning more about these fascinating little members of our solar system along the way.
It’s hard to talk about small solar system citizens without also thinking of Pluto, our little former ninth planet, and wondering what, exactly, happened to it. The astronomical heroes (or maybe anti-heroes) behind Pluto’s journey from discovery to demotion span more than 70 years.
In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and classified it as the ninth planet in our solar system. In 1960, Julio Fernández predicted that an enormous and crowded belt of small rocky objects should surround the outside of our solar system, just at and beyond Pluto’s orbit.
However, it was only in 1992 that David Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the first observational evidence of this belt. The research that followed ultimately led to Pluto’s demotion from planet status in 2006, along with a significantly expanded picture of our solar system and its outer boundaries.
Studying the Sun’s Evolution
At the heart of our solar system, our own Sun has also been an immense font of information about astronomy and the inner physics of stars.
Solar physicists have used enormous tanks of liquid to detect neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles, that emerge from the sun’s core and act as miniscule ambassadors from the immensely hot and dense heart of a star.
Astronomers have also been mounting heroic solar eclipse expeditions, with observations carried out in some of the most remote corners of the globe to study gravity, magnetism, and the sun’s evolution. This fascinating array of techniques and creative ideas in the field of astronomy have allowed us to harness the scientific power of our closest stellar neighbor.
For years, astronomers imagined other stars to be potentially hosting other distant solar systems. In 1992, these imaginings became a reality. Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the first discovery of two exoplanets, or planets orbiting another star.
From this first discovery, astronomers have gone on to detect thousands of exoplanets, refining their observational techniques and building new space telescopes specifically designed to find these tiny and distant stellar companions.
Today teams of astronomers are working on discovering new exoplanets and exploring what new worlds might look like in planetary systems across our galaxy.
The search for life in space is an ongoing and fascinating pursuit within astronomy, and one that raises fundamental questions about the universe, Earth, and our own nature as human beings. Astronomers like Vikki Meadows and Sara Seager have focused their efforts in the field of astrobiology, synthesizing two fields to better understand how life could begin to flourish on distant worlds.
Others, like Jill Tarter, have turned their efforts towards SETI—the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence—in the hopes of detecting intelligent life on other planets.
Exploding stars, gravitational waves, alien life: the astronomical mysteries of today and tomorrow ask big questions, and answering them will require big telescopes, big dreams, and a new generation of astronomical heroes.
In the next decades, enormous new ground- and space-based telescopes will begin operating. These facilities are set to change the face of astronomy, offering new and powerful tools for observing nearby asteroids, strange stars, and distant galaxies.
Common Questions about Advances in the Field of Astronomy
Finding and studying nearby objects like asteroids and comets is an important part of astronomy because these might one day come close (perhaps even a bit too close) to our planet. It is crucial part of understanding our solar system and the fate and history of our planet.
In 1960, Julio Fernández predicted that an enormous and crowded belt of small rocky objects should surround the outside of our solar system, just at and beyond Pluto’s orbit.
In 1992, David Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the first observational evidence of a belt of small rocky objects surrounding the outside of our solar system, just at and beyond Pluto’s orbit. The research that followed ultimately led to Pluto’s demotion from planet status in 2006.