5 Noteworthy Astronomical Feats of 2016

Dec 22, 2016

As 2016 draws to a close, Manfred Olson Planetarium at UW-Milwaukee director and Lake Effect contributor Jean Creighton highlights the important astronomy stories of the past year:

Highlights of 2016:

1. Discovery of Gravitational Waves

"It was thrilling to be sitting at UWM and watching the press conference where the National Science Foundation person stood up and said, 'We discovered gravitational waves,'" Creighton says.

The discovery of two black holes the width of Wisconsin, about thirty times heavier than the sun merge, made such a powerful event that they produced more energy than all the stars, in all of the galaxies in the whole universe for a fraction of a second - together. "For both the science and the science wherewithal that got us there, this is - I think, everyone would argue the most important astronomical event, maybe even in science, this year," says Creighton.

Read: Meet UWM Scientists Involved In Gravitational Waves Discovery

2. Juno Spacecraft

The Juno Spacecraft is the eighth spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and its main purpose is to understand the interior of the planet and learn more about the aurora. "Because the magnetic field of Jupiter is so incredibly strong, the aurora there are phenomenal," Creighton explains.

3. The End of Rosetta Space Probe

The probe has crash-landed on the surface of a distant comet, ending its 12-year mission that made a series of discoveries. "We've expected that some of the water that's on Earth came from coments...but to our surprise, if you look at the isotopic abundance, the kind of flavors of water on the comets compared to that on Earth - they don't match. So that would suggest that this kind of comet isn't going to be the vehicle that brings water to Earth," Creighton explains.

4. The Cassini Spacecraft

For 14 years, Cassini has been studying Saturn and its moons, according to Creighton. It is being prepared for its mission's end to plunge into Saturn. "Invariably that will end the mission, but hopefully we get some good data on the way down," she notes.

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon.
Credit NASA

5. New Horizons Mission to Pluto

This mission produced the most detailed pictures of the planet to date. "Stay tuned. Pluto's obviously a place, like every place, the more we know about them the more intriguing they are," says Creighton.