Blood moons, billionaires, and boisterous debates about orbital debris — a lot has happened in space in 2021.
1News spoke to Stardome Observatory and Planetarium astronomy educator Josh Kirkley about some of the most memorable moments in space this year.
Billionaires blast off
After a promising 2020, the shift toward the privatisation of space flights continued into 2021.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX were among the companies leading the year’s most high-profile manned suborbital space flights.
While the missions were hailed as another leap toward space tourism and travel by amateurs, they also attracted criticism.
Kirkley said that the notion of the ultra-rich blasting off into space while the world was still grappling with Covid-19 was a “double-edged sword”.
“It’s an exciting opportunity … but then, on the other hand, it’s during a pandemic where millions of people are suffering and not having a great time on Earth, and we’re seeing billionaires flying off into space for joy rides, essentially.”
He said it wasn’t unprecedented for advancements in space technology and exploration to happen amid difficult times on Earth, like the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s amid tumultuous times in the US.
“A lot of people said the same thing about NASA, for example, that it was a waste of money and ‘Why do we do these things that don’t really affect us?’
“I think the larger picture is that space exploration, whether it’s private or not, is generally a positive thing.
“Everything we do in space is, typically, to benefit us on Earth if you think about the technologies and the developments that have been made in space,” Kirkley said.
New Zealand’s skies were graced with two rare blood moons in 2021.
The first, in May, saw a super blood moon lure Kiwis out of their homes in droves to witness the phenomenon for the first time in nearly 40 years.
In November, a blood micromoon was visible for more than three hours. It was the longest near-total eclipse visible from New Zealand in more than 800 years.
“Lunar eclipses are just really incredible phenomena. You’re seeing the solar system in motion and seeing celestial objects and physics working at the same time with your own eyes,” Kirkley said.
“I think it’s something that really brings people together … and looks out at the moment — not just in New Zealand, but around the world.
“I think it kind of gives us a little glimmer of hope and joy and wonder, essentially, of the universe that we live in.”
And humankind is set to get an even better view of the universe, with the James Webb Space Telescope’s launch this week. It is now on the path to seek out faint lights form the first stars and galaxies.
The US$10 billion telescope, the successor to Hubble, is the largest most powerful astronomical observatory ever to leave Earth.
2021 saw the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates arrive on the Red Planet.
Among the advancements in 2021 is NASA converting carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to pure oxygen.
Kirkley said the Mars missions all had the potential to “give us a wealth of information about planet formations”.
“You can really boil it down to trying to answer the question of ‘How was life formed?’”
He said there was also a lot of politics that played into astronomy.
“With all these nations sending different spacecraft to Mars, they’re all trying to achieve something.
“But, more recently, we’re starting to see countries seeing the value of co-operation and working together in space and collaborating on missions — not just to save money, but to achieve more together.”
Russia, the US, and space junk
Speaking of politics, as political tensions mount between the US and Russia over troops near Ukraine, some other disagreements have spilled into space.
In November, the US accused Russia of endangering people aboard the International Space Station by conducting a weapons test that created more than 1500 pieces of space junk. Russia denied the accusation and called the remarks by US officials “hypocritical”.
In December, Russia said the ISS had to adjust its orbit to avoid hitting pieces of debris from a US rocket.
“As much as we can look at a lot of missions and countries working together positively, the flip side is there are also countries that just basically don’t get along,” Kirkley said.
“At the end of the day, you’ve also got to remember that it’s not the astronauts themselves up there that are fighting — it’s actually us on the ground.”
On the topic of space junk, debris from China’s Long March 5B rocket made its way back to Earth in May in an out of control manner. At the time, people weren’t sure where the pieces that hadn’t burned in the atmosphere might land — a place as far south as Wellington was said to be a possibility.
One physics professor said at the time the possibility was unlikely, and that New Zealand should probably be more concerned about its own space junk.
Looking ahead to 2022
Next year was going to be action-packed, Kirkley said.
The European Space Agency plans to launch an explorer Jupiter in August 2022. Europe’s ExoMars mission is also expected to take flight around September.
Private space flights will also continue and become more frequent and we could start to see private companies begin to develop orbital space stations, Kirkley said.
Back home, he said New Zealand could expect to see two lunar eclipses.
June 24 will also mark the first time Matariki becomes a public holiday. Kirkley said it illustrated an ongoing and gradual cultural shift to a bicultural Aotearoa.
“Matariki represents not just the holiday, but us starting to acknowledge something that is uniquely Aotearoa,” he said.
“It also represents a shift towards acknowledging not just ‘Western science’ per se, but also Mātauranga Māori.”
Leave A Comment