The existence of black holes, first proposed by Albert Einstein in his 1916 general theory of relativity, has been known for decades. However, astrophysicists have thus far relied on indirect evidence, such as the stars orbiting a large and invisible object in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, to prove their presence. That changed on April 10, 2019, with the release of the first-ever direct visual evidence of a black hole in the center of the galaxy M87, located 55 million light-years from Earth.
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After almost twenty years in space — thirteen of which were spent making extraordinary discoveries about the Saturn system, including its rings and natural satellites — NASA's Cassini spacecraft finally ran out of fuel. However, shortly before plunging into on September 15, 2017, the probe completed one final important mission: six close flybys of tiny moons located inside, or near, Saturn's rings.
Ever since the US shuttle program ended in 2011, astronauts - both American and those from other nations - have been dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to go to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The reliance, which costs NASA $70 million for each trip, is expensive and also leaves astronauts in danger of being stranded in the event of a like the one experienced in October 2018. Now, thanks to SpaceX's successful Crew Dragon test mission, astronauts may soon have an alternate, more affordable, mode of transportation to the ISS.
Virgin Galactic's founder, Sir Richard Branson, has been hoping to make space tourism a reality since 2008. While it has taken a little longer than the 18 months he had originally estimated, the company is getting increasingly closer to accomplishing its mission. On December 13, 2018, Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceliner, VSS Unity, made history with the longest rocket-powered flight when it soared to the edge of space, 51.4 miles (82 km) above sea level. On February 22, 2019, the aircraft repeated the feat, this time with its first passenger – the company's astronaut trainer Beth Moses - on board.
Experts estimate that Earth gets bombarded with thousands of pieces of cosmic debris each year. While most burn up in the atmosphere, a few hundred survive and hit the planet's surface annually. While the impact of the space rocks, which come hurtling down at rapid speeds, has thus far been minimal, the possibility of an asteroid landing in a densely populated area and causing severe damage cannot be ignored.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006 with a primary mission to perform the first-ever flyby of Pluto, has provided researchers with invaluable information about the dwarf planet. Now, the space probe has made more history with its January 1, 2019 flyby of distant world 2014 MU69. The close rendezvous with the icy rock, located four billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, is not only humanity’s furthest encounter with a distant object, but also the most primitive one ever visited by a spacecraft.
Though we are treated to several meteor showers throughout the year, most pale in comparison to the grand finale – the Geminids. Expected to be at their peak on Thursday and Friday night (Dec. 13-14, 2018), the dependable meteors rank high in both quantity and quality. Nicknamed the “900-pound gorilla of meteor showers” by NASA, they outweigh other dust streams by factors of between 5 to 500! The shooting stars are also easier to spot because they streak through the skies at a noticeably slower pace, encountering Earth at about 22 miles (35 kilometers) per second, or about half the speed of the Perseids meteors’ 37 miles (60 kilometers) per second.
On November 26, 2018, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California held their breath as the InSight spacecraft attempted the most challenging part of its 300 million-mile-long journey to Mars – landing. At 2:53 p.m. EST, following a few nail-biting moments, the room erupted in joy at the sound of the official “beep,” and the grainy photo of the Red Planet which confirmed that the lander had not only touched down but was functioning as expected.