Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/12/29/space_stuff_2006/

Crossing final frontiers in space

What did we learn in 2006, then?

By Lucy Sherriff

Posted in Science, 29th December 2006 08:02 GMT

2006 in review When the powers that be here at Vulture Central asked for a round up of the events in space exploration and discovery over the last year, frankly we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Put a narrative thread behind the comings and goings at NASA? Detail the discoveries beaming back to Earth from myriad satellites? Explain how dark energy matters? In the run up to Christmas?

So, to help us concentrate, we turned to the comedic skills of one Eric Idle who, with a little help from John Du Prez, wrote The Galaxy Song. It will guide our path through the various scientific discoveries and magnificent journeys of 2006....behold:

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour...That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned, A sun that is the source of all our power.

And thanks to an agreement between The European Space Agency and Google Earth, you can see more of it than you previously could. ESA provided 130 beautiful satellite snaps of our little world doing its thang for Google to illustrate Google Earth.

Not too far from home, you'll find the moon. Lots of things about the moon made the news this year. For a start, Europe crash landed on it. Deliberately. Not to be outdone, NASA outlined its plans for building a lunar base. Show-offs.

There is general agreement about the second line of the song: we do indeed orbit the sun (we're sure there are some people who disagree, but really, who cares about them, right?) and thanks to a bunch of satellite launches this year, we should be getting a better understanding of it pretty soon.

This will mostly be thanks to NASA's twin solar observatory STEREO,which made its way into space this October. But Japan also launched a solar observatory - Solar-B - which will track the surface of our local star for the patterns in the magnetic field lines that foreshadow solar flares.

The twin solar observatories of STEREO, meanwhile, will send back images and data that will allow researchers to build the first ever truly three dimensional images of the sun. It'll also provide early warnings of scary solar weather, giving satellites time to switch into safe mode before floods of solar particles wipe out all their circuits.

And while all this launching of observatories was going on, the data coming back to Earth from the existing sun-watchers shed new light on space weather. SoHo (the SOlar Heliospheric Observatory) provided the data, and some boffins simulated the behaviour of the sun's atmosphere.

Moving on from our immediate locale, there was also a fair amount of activity just in our own solar system. The Mars Rovers kept NASA busy, sending back picture after picture of the red planet. They were also snapped themselves, in the act of climbing to the edges of craters. Later in the year, pictures from the Mars Global Surveyor suggested water might still flow on the red planet.

All kinds of mayhem, indeed.

Europe also has Mars firmly in its sights with the bad news that the mission is being delayed being slightly offset by the good news that this might mean more exciting science can be done. China is also plotting a path to Mars, officially announcing its ambitions through the Xinhua news agency in July this year.

Heading further from the sun, we approach the ringed planet Saturn. Thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, we have seen plenty of pictures of pretty moons and rings, not to mention odd weather on the planet itself. Oh, and did we mention the pictures of the rings? And the moons and stuff?

So, where to now? Heading out past the rest of the planets, and the recently demoted Pluto, we reach the strange and icy realms of the comets.

NASA managed to collect some particles from the tail of Comet Wild2. To everyone's surprise, some of the stuff they collected had to have formed at high temperatures - that is, in the inner solar system - as well as all the icy material one would expect to find in an object thought to have formed at the very dark and distant edges of the solar system. Very odd indeed.

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. ®