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Crossing final frontiers in space

What did we learn in 2006, then?

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The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see Are moving at a million miles a day In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour, Of the galaxy we call the "Milky Way".

The local galaxy. One of "millions of billions". And those are just the ones we can see.

2006 saw some progress being made on tracking down the ones we can't, the really old ones, and the ones doing peculiarly energetic things.

Last year saw the launch of NASA's space-based Swift Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. Swift was sent up into space to act as a rapid response unit - capturing as much data as possible the instant it spotted one of the mysterious and hugely energetic explosions, as well as triggering other observatories to start watching too.

And 2006 saw it really start to earn its keep, with data collected on more than 150 bursts already, including some really interesting explosions nearer to us than a GRB would normally be.

Staying with the distant and weird parts of the universe, boffins in charge of the Spitzer Space Telescope have been spotting supermassive blackholes all over the place. Ones that are about to go bang, and ones that are just being galactic nuclei. Other researchers have been trying to work out just how many of the damn things there are that they can't see at all.

All very enlightening, so let's get back to the song:

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding; In all of the directions it can whizz

Which brings us neatly to dark energy and dark matter. This year, we found that these two things are either very well established facts or utter delusional fancy, depending on who you are talking to.

So we were very pleased that NASA announced direct, observational evidence of some dark matter. Data from the Chandra-X and Hubble telescopes as well as the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and the Magellan optical telescopes had turned up evidence of a huge, intergalactic collision. Gas behaving oddly indicated that dark matter must be involved. Not quite as direct and observational as we had hoped, but it is something.

European boffins also set off chasing elusive theoretical monsters from physics text books of yore, with the inaugural universe scanning of the GEO600 gravity wave detector. Sounds like the sort of thing you could pick up on eBay, but we understand it will be useful in finding out just how clever Einstein was.

So you can cruise in to the end of the year, safe in the knowledge that clever sciencey types are working hard to explain the universe, despite various efforts to the contrary.

This might be of more comfort to you that the closing lines of Idle's Galaxy Song, which have been hailed as "unassailable fact" by Paul Kohlmiller of the San Jose Astronomical Association, when he was checking into how well the song has held up under the light of scientific advancement in the last 20 years. We find it hard to argue with his analysis.

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure, How amazingly unlikely is your birth, And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space, 'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

Ramen. ®

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