Steffen Richter (Harvard University)
The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background).
Image: Artist's impression of the Huygens pro
10. Saturn Moon Titan Explored
On Jan. 14, 2005, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe dropped through Titan's atmosphere after a seven-year trek attached to NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Huygens wasn't designed to live for very long after atmospheric reentry, but it unveiled a mysterious outer solar system world to us for the first time. Before this mission, very little was known about Saturn's largest moon, and scientists were unsure whether Huygens would land on a rocky surface or in an ocean. Titan's thick atmosphere -- composed of primarily nitrogen and clouds of methane and ethane, about 50 percent thicker than our atmosphere -- signaled to scientists that Titan was similar to a young Earth. Observations from the Huygens probe and Cassini spacecraft tell us that Titan and Earth share many features, such as sand dunes and lakes. But these features are heavily laced with organic molcules that could support life, leading researchers to speculate about Titan's potential to nurture microbes.
Image: The cratered surface of the moon (NASA
9. Moon Water Confirmed
India's Chandrayaan-1 satellite confirmed the presence of water on the moon in September 2009, building on flyby observations by other probes on their way elsewhere. Although the lunar surface is still drier than Earth's driest desert, evidence of water is there, hinting at a solar wind interaction with the moon's surface that produces water and hydroxyl molecules. It may not be an oasis up there, but future moon colonists could extract and purify the traces of water from the surface to use for drinking, food cultivation, oxygen and fuel. Or, our colonists could take a trek to the moon's poles to mine water from the deepest craters On Oct. 9, 2009, NASA dropped a spent rocket into a crater to produce a 100-foot-wide hole. They found water there too. That rocket produced a massive plume of dust that was analyzed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and ground-based observatories. At least 25 gallons of water ice was detected in the plume.
Image: Artist's impression of Comet Tempel 1
8. Organic Chemistry Collected from Comet's Tail
In 2004, the NASA Stardust mission chased after Comet Wild 2 to find out if the icy mass contained the building blocks for life, since meteorites found on Earth contained organic chemistry that originated from space. Sure enough, in August 2009, NASA announced that they had found samples of glycine -- an amino acid -- in Stardust's collection plates. It didn't stop there, there's increasing evidence that exoplanets orbiting distant stars contain organic chemistry in their atmospheres. In 2008, organic chemicals were detected in the disk surrounding a star called HR 4796A, 220 light-years from Earth. And most recently, NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes detected carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet called HD 209458b. These discoveries, sparked by Stardust, have transformed our understanding about how life may have formed on Earth. They also give us a strong hint that life may not be unique to Earth; the universe appears to be manufacturing organic chemistry everywhere.
Image: X-ray observastion of the center of ou
7. A Supermassive Black Hole on Our Doorstep
There's a monster living in the center of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years from Earth. By 2008, astronomers tracking the behavior of stars orbiting an invisible point confirmed that the monster is a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. A lone star called "S2," with a very fast orbit, has been tracked since 1995 around this invisible point. In 2002, Rainer Schödel and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics announced that the only explanation for S2's fast orbit was that it was circling a very compact, massive object -- a supermassive black hole -- that was stopping the star from flinging out of its orbit into space. In 2008, after S2 completed one 16-year orbit, it was confirmed that the star was orbiting a black hole with a gargantuan mass of approximately 4.3 million suns. The confirmation of a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way boosted the theory that most galaxies contain a supermassive black hole at their cores.
Image: A WMAP map of variations in microwave
6. Big Bang "Echo" Mapped for the First Time
In June 2001, NASA set out to find the ancient "echo" of the Big Bang by mapping the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that buzzes like static throughout the cosmos, using the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) . When the universe was born, vast amounts of energy were unleashed, which eventually condensed into the stuff that makes up the mass of what we see today. The radiation that was created by the Big Bang still exists, but as faint microwaves. By mapping slight variations in the CMB radiation, the probe has been able to precisely measure the age of the universe (13.73 billion years old) and work out that a huge 96 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of stuff we cannot see. Only 4 percent of the cosmic mass is held in the stars and galaxies we observe; the rest is held in "dark energy" and "dark matter."
Image: A Type Ia supernova explodes in the ou
5. Hubble Gets to Grips with Dark Energy
In 2002, the Hubble Space Telescope was upgraded with a new instrument, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, that revealed the presence of a mysterious force called "dark energy." The camera was set up to help researchers understand why Type Ia supernovae were dimmer than expected. Hubble's observations of these supernovae discovered that they weren't dimmer because the stars were different (they should all explode with the same brightness). The only explanation was that the universe's expansion was unexpectedly and inexplicably speeding up. This accelerated expansion was making the light dim over vast cosmic distances. Hubble's discovery led to a better understanding of what dark energy is -- an invisible force that opposes gravity, causing the universe's expansion to speed up. WATCH VIDEO about Hubble's most recent upgrade.
Image: Artist's impression of Eris and moon D
4. Eris Discovered; Pluto Demoted
In January 2005, Mike Brown and his team at Palomar Observatory, Calif. discovered 136199 Eris, a minor body that is 27 percent bigger than Pluto. Eris had trumped Pluto and become the 9th largest body known to orbit the sun. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided that the likelihood of finding more small rocky bodies in the outer solar system was so high that the definition "a planet" needed to be reconsidered. The end result: Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet and it acquired a "minor planet designator" in front of its name: "134340 Pluto." WATCH VIDEO about Pluto's demotion to a minor planet. Mike Brown's 2005 discovery of Eris was the trigger that changed the face of our solar system, defining the planets and adding Pluto to a growing family of dwarf planets.
Image: The Bullet Nebula (NASA)
3. Dark Matter Detected
In the summer of 2006, astronomers made an announcement that helped humans understand the cosmos a little better: They had direct evidence confirming the existence of dark matter -- even though they still can't say what exactly the stuff is. The unprecedented evidence came from the careful weighing of gas and stars flung about in the head-on smash-up between two great clusters of galaxies in the Bullet Cluster. Until then, the existence of dark matter was inferred by the fact that galaxies have only one-fifth of the visible matter needed to create the gravity that keeps them intact. So the rest must be invisible to telescopes: That unseen matter is "dark." The observations of the Bullet Cluster, officially known as galaxy cluster 1E0657-56, did not explain what dark matter is. They did, however, give researchers hints that dark matter particles act a certain way, which they can build on. -- Larry O'Hanlon
Image: The red surface of Mars, plus Phoenix'
2. Mars Surface Gives up Signs of Water
In 2008, NASA's Mars Phoenix lander touched down on the Red Planet to confirm the presence of water and seek out signs of organic compounds. Eight years before, the Mars Global Surveyor spotted what appeared to be gullies carved into the landscape by flowing water. More recently, the Mars Expedition Rovers have uncovered minerals that also indicated the presence of ancient water. But proof of modern-day water was illusive. Then Phoenix, planted on the ground near the North Pole, did some digging for samples to analyze. During one dig, the onboard cameras spotted a white powder in the freshly dug soil. In comparison images taken over the coming days, the powder slowly vanished. After intense analysis, the white powder was confirmed as water ice. This discovery not only confirmed the presence of water on the Red Planet, it reenergized the hope that some kind of microbial life might be using this water supply to survive.
Image: Hubble's optical light view of of the
1. Alien Planets Spotted Directly
The first alien planets -- called exoplanets -- were being detected in the early 1990s, but not directly. In 2000, astronomers detected a handful by looking for a star's "wobble," or a star's slight dimming as the exoplanet passed in front of it. Today we know of 400 exoplanets. In 2008, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and the infrared Keck and Gemini observatories in Hawaii announced that they had "seen" exoplanets orbiting distant stars. The two observatories had taken images of these alien worlds. The Keck observation was the infrared detection of three exoplanets orbiting a star called HR8799, 150 light-years from Earth. Hubble spotted one massive exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, 25 light-years from Earth. These finds pose a profound question: How long will it be until we spot an Earth-like world with an extraterrestrial civilization looking back at us?
The thing about science is that it is a dynamic, yet strict, process. When a groundbreaking discovery is made, other scientists weigh in and try to replicate the results, thereby growing the body of evidence around the initial discovery. But problems will often crop up when a discovery is announced prematurely having not gone through the full peer review process.
This problem appears to have reared its tricky head for the BICEP2 team who, in March, announced the groundbreaking discovery that their South Pole-based observatory had detected a specific kind of polarized light embedded in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that originates from our universe’s genesis: the Big Bang. Now their work has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters, but it now comes with a pretty hefty caveat: more work needs to be done to account for obscuring galactic dust.
A Premature Announcement?
The implications for the March announcement were three-fold: The discovery of a certain type of polarization — known as B-mode polarization — in the CMB suggests the presence of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves have yet to be observed, despite the fact they are predicted to pervade the entire universe by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. So, a positive detection of gravitational waves would be historic enough.
But there’s more.
The detection of gravitational waves in the CMB would hint at a Big Bang origin. Any ‘signal’ embedded in the slight ripples of varying temperature of the CMB (features known as ‘anisotropies’), suggests that its origin would be just after the Big Bang occurred. One model of the Big Bang, and the moments just after, suggests the universe went through a rapid period of expansion known as ‘inflation.’ The detection of gravitational waves in this way provided the “smoking gun” for the theory of inflation. Yet another historic discovery.
Finally, for the gravitational waves to be embedded in the CMB at all, if we wind back time to the inflationary period when the universe was a fraction of the size it is now, the gravitational waves would have had to have been very tiny when they were created. In fact, they would have been created on the tiniest scales possible hinting at a quantum origin.
One of the biggest conundrums in physics is how gravity fits with the Standard Model. The Standard Model, which is a recipe book of sorts for the quantum world, ignores gravity, hinting that the Standard Model is not a complete theory or that there is some more exotic physics beyond the Standard Model. If this B-mode polarization is real, it would suggest that quantum gravity — transmitted in the form of hypothetical gravitons — left its imprint on the CMB when the universe was very young.
In a nutshell, the detection of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background would be a World Cup, World Series and Superbowl win all rolled into one.
“Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today,” John Kovac, leader of the BICEP2 collaboration at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said after the March announcement.
But there was a problem. The BICEP2 physicists announced their discovery before they had published their research to a peer reviewed journal.
Has the Horse Bolted?
Almost immediately after the March announcement, scientists not affiliated with the BICEP2 team started to air their concerns about the research. Although the BICEP2 team had pored over their data for years, accounting for any errors, rumors started to swirl suggesting that even members of the BICEP2 team were concerned about their analysis. These rumors were quickly squashed by the BICEP2 team, but the air of doubt was building.
The doubt centers on galactic dust that exists in the Milky Way. When observing the furthest-most reaches of the Cosmos, the BICEP2 telescope has to look through this intervening dust. For any precise measurements of the CMB, the polarizing effects of galactic dust needs to be corrected for. Unfortunately, only a vague idea of the dust’s polarizing effect was known by the BICEP2 team during their analysis.
The European space-based telescope Planck is also analyzing the CMB, looking for gravitational wave signals and is able to map the polarization effect of galactic dust. The Planck team have yet to publish their results, but are expected to do so soon. Without the Planck data, scientists are concerned that the BICEP2 analysis is incomplete and the B-mode polarization signal may just be a polarization effect by this intervening dust.
Now that the BICEP2 discovery has been published, the team has added a cautionary note in their summary. They now say that their models “are not sufficiently constrained by external public data to exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal.” Considering they had already announced the discovery of gravitational waves, is this the equivalent of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted?
To publish results such as these in a peer reviewed journal, a panel of scientists in the related field comment on the shortcomings of the work. It seems most likely that this added air of caution was a requirement to get their work published rather than any change of heart by the BICEP2 scientists. But it is unfortunate that the gravitational wave discovery announcement was made so prematurely.
So nothing has changed, it’s just that now we are seeing the scientific process play out in a very public arena. The BICEP2 results stand until the Planck team make their results public later this year — only then will we know whether or not primordial gravitational waves have been detected.