01/16/2017 05:03 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

2016 Was An Monumental Year For Space


The last twelve months have been monumental for astronomers, physicists, and fellow enthusiasts of the cosmos. From the most powerful supernova recorded, to the discovery of gravitational waves that validate Einstein, to huge advancements in our efforts to colonize Mars, it's obvious that the cosmos has opened up to us in 2016.

In January, the most powerful supernova ever recorded began the year with a bang. At it's peak output, the supernova was 600 billion times brighter than our sun, and 20 times as bright as the entire stellar throughput of the Milky Way. The discovery of the supernova was important because it helped substantiate theories about magnetars (incredibly massive stars with unfathomable magnetic fields). Essentially, it showed us that similarly sized stars have to exist for such a supernova to occur.

Then we have the discovery of gravitational waves in February. We knew Einstein's theory of relativity was always right-- we just never had a clue why. The collision of two black holes warped space-time and left raptures the size of galaxies in its wake. We were able to pick up this explosion in the form of gravitational waves as they whispered into our atmosphere. The beauty of that is truly striking: a collision capable of destroying entire galaxies entered our atmosphere in the form of barely audible whispers. These gravitational waves were the first non-light signals we could pick up from space, meaning we could sequence data from before light even existed.

Let's not leave planetary science out of this discussion. In July, Juno finally reached Jupiter and began examining the beautiful mystery of the gas giant. Cassini also bolstered our knowledge of Saturn as it was able to elucidate much of the planet's electrical and chemical identity. Most importantly, however, Curiosity has been in constant contact with NASA as it continues to traverse the red planet.

In September, SpaceX managed to (albeit with some hiccups along the way) deliver insanely promising rocket technology, all under Elon Musk's exciting vision that make us giddy at the thought of interplanetary travel. Virgin Galactic also came forth with some interesting designs, and is gearing up for a full on arms race to consumer space travel.

Finally, November brought us the successor to the the iconic Hubble Telescope and it was a behemoth. The James Webb has several times the optical capability of its younger brother, and the sheer promise of such a space telescope continues to excite NASA.

It's clear that in only twelve months we've been able to see so much of what lies beyond us. For those of you that are wondering why this is important, let's refer to Carl Sagan:

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

Clear, and with an eloquence I can only dream of, Sagan underscores the importance of astronomy. The parochial lens of our world limits us greatly, and what better way to understand our foibles and wrongdoings than to explore the sheer vastness beyond.