In the 21st century, astrophysics has experienced some of the biggest breakthroughs ever in human history. Here’s a list:
The Discovery of Higgs Boson – Biggest Breakthroughs
The Higgs boson is an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. It’s also one of the most expensive particles of all time.
Meanwhile, the Higgs field is the field of energy that exists everywhere in the universe and gives particles their mass.
The Higgs boson particle helps transmit the mass giving Higgs field, similar to the way a particle of light, the photon, transmits the electromagnetic field.
The discovery of this particle required the creation of experimental energies rarely seen before on our planet. I’m talking about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), one of the most famous and successful scientific experiments of all time.
The LHC is the largest and highest-energy particle collider and the largest machine in the world. Scientists constructed it with the explicit goal of discovering the Higgs boson.
Scientists discovered this particle, previously called the God particle, on 4 July 2012.
The Direct Detection Of Gravitational Waves – Biggest Breakthroughs
Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves with his theory of General Relativity back in 1915.
After decades of theoretical work, however, it became clear that as masses moved through the Universe, the curvature of spacetime changed, and masses moving through a spacetime whose curvature changed with the time needed to emit a new form of radiation: gravitational waves.
Directly detecting gravitational waves required mind-boggling technological expertise and a history of hunting.
Finally, on September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Day Time, made the first direct observation of gravitational waves using the twin LIGO interferometers, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington.
Before LIGO, most astronomy has relied on different forms of electromagnetic radiation (visible light, radio waves, X-rays, etc.)
With the creation of LIGO, an entirely new field was born: gravitational wave astronomy.
Detecting The Event Horizon Of A Black Hole Directly – Biggest Breakthroughs
The first time the world saw what a black hole looks like was in April of 2019. That’s when scientists obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87.
This picture required hundreds of scientists. They used many petabytes of data collected simultaneously with radio telescopes and arrays of radio telescopes all across the world. Each telescope can see a small part of the black hole. Thus, together they form a virtual telescope the size of the world–the Event Horizon Telescope.
This was the first time humans saw an event horizon of a black hole. This also confirmed yet another prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity.
The black hole at the center of M87, 55 million light-years away, has swallowed the mass of 6.5 billion suns. Yet its event horizon is only 40 billion kilometers across—about four times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit. No existing telescope has the resolution to see such a distant, tiny object.
WMAP Observations Of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – Biggest Breakthroughs
The Big Bang theory predicts that the early universe was a very hot place. And as it expands, the gas within it cools. This tells us radiation that is literally the remnant heat leftover from the Big Bang (Cosmic Microwave Background) permeates the universe.
The existence of the CMB radiation was first predicted by Ralph Alpher in 1948.
It was first observed inadvertently in 1965 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
In 2001, NASA launched the WMAP, short for the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, intending to sense subtle temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background, the glow of the first atoms to release their radiation 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
WMAP has been stunningly successful, producing our new Standard Model of Cosmology.
The Discovery Of Organic Molecules On Comets – Biggest Breakthroughs
In 2014, after a ten-year journey, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. For the next two years, Rosetta orbited the comet, all the while gathering invaluable data on the icy body.
In 2016, NASA-funded researchers announced that the Rosetta spacecraft had discovered some building blocks of DNA in the thin atmosphere of the comet.
This breakthrough suggested that not only could comets be responsible for assisting the origins of life on our planet, but they could also be responsible for delivering organic molecules to other worlds.
First Confirming Evidence Of Water On Mars
The first successful landing on Mars came in 1976 when NASA’s Viking 1 lander touched down in Chryse Planitia (The Plains of Golf).
Many of the rovers and satellites sent to the Red Planet since then have returned data providing evidence that there had once been water on the planet, with the discovery of ancient riverbeds and remnants of vast flooding.
But in 2015, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provided conclusive evidence that liquid water still flows intermittently on Mars.
Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet.
These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons.
They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
Revolutionary ALMA Image Reveals Planetary Genesis – Biggest Breakthroughs
In 2014, ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, revealed remarkable details of a forming solar system.
This image from ALMA reveals extraordinarily fine detail that has never been seen before in the planet-forming disc around a young star, the HL Tauri.
The images are the sharpest that scientists ever made at submillimetre wavelengths. They show how forming planets are vacuuming up dust and gas in a protoplanetary disc.
First Image Of An Exoplanet (2M1207b) – Biggest Breakthroughs
This is the first-ever photo of a planet outside our solar system, some 1,200 light-years away. It was imaged by the VLT, the Very Large Telescope, in 2004.
The composite image shows an exoplanet (the red spot on the lower left), orbiting a failed star, the brown dwarf 2M1207.
The 5-Jupiter-mass planet orbits the brown dwarf at a distance of 55 times the mean Earth-Sun distance.