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Backyard astronomy: 2021 encouraged us to look beyond the stars

Gary Boyle

Monday, January 10, 2022

Looking back to 2021, there were many great space stories in the news, including two lunar eclipses back in May and November. By coincidence, two more total lunar eclipses will occur in May and November 2022.

We were also entertained by three great meteor showers in January, August and December but the moon ran major interference. The Northern Lights were prominent last month, particularly in western Canada, painting the sky green.

The never-ending list of exoplanets continues to grow, with a total of 4,884 confirmed worlds and another 8,288 candidates. This search continues via ground and space-based telescopes.

So, next time you look up at those twinkling points of light, you are looking at mini solar systems of at least one planet orbiting its parent star. After all the sun is but one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

It was this time last year that the Japanese Hayabusa mission successfully returned soil samples from the asteroid Itokawa. The sample shows that water and organic matter that originate from the asteroid itself have evolved chemically through time. It has long been the thought of astronomers and scientists that building blocks of organic compounds needed to create life began in the solar system and was delivered to the young Earth via meteorites.

Missions like this shed new light on this theory. Meteorites and comets contain small amounts of water, and impacts over millions of years have most likely delivered water to the Earth.

Until now, the sun has been studied by Earth-bound telescopes and orbiting satellites. The amount of information learned is outstanding, but the missing key was a physical examination.

Never before has a spacecraft touched the sun, until the Solar Parker Probe launched in 2018. Over the years, the craft made multiple manoeuvres as it gets closer to the sun.

Private companies have proved they have the right stuff to launch into space. Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin allowed 90-year-old William Shatner and retired NFL Michael Strahan to touch space by past the 100 Karman Line. But Elon Musk has taken space travel one step further, by transporting astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station via the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. It is the same Dragon capsule that was almost used as an emergency escape vehicle. The International Space Station was subjected to a dangerous debris field of a purposely blown-up satellite. The danger has all but passed, but there were some anxious moments.

In September 2022, the DART mission will arrive at the 800-metre wide asteroid Didymos to deflect a small 160-metre wide moonlet Dimorphos. This is a test to see if a potential asteroid coming towards Earth can be slightly deflected, thus changing course and missing our planet. This particular asteroid is only a test subject, and is no way on a collision course with our home planet.

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (successor to the Hubble Space Telescope), or JWST, was launched on Christmas Day. It has a much larger mirror system and will study infant galaxies in the near-infrared, thus allowing us to see through the gas and dust of the earliest galaxies. It will operate at a distance of 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth where the temperature of space is -223 degrees celsius. The JWST will be capable to look back to the beginning of the universe, some 13.8 billion years ago. One of its many projects will be to see if black holes helped create the galaxies, or if they came afterwards. It will also look for signs of like in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.

Till next time, clear skies.

Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, public speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has also been interviewed on more than 50 Canadian radio stations and has been honoured with renaming of Asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or his website at

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