[Yelling into a cavernous chamber as supernovae explode in the dark and a gust of hot wind comes whistling through] SCIENCE!!!!
Now that, friends, is how you introduce a science year-end list. Like everything else in 2020, science had one hell of a year. There were thrilling highs, like the record speed of creating coronavirus vaccines and our closest look ever at the surface of the Sun, but there were also gutting lows, like the toll of the virus, the worsening climate crisis, and the tragic collapse of the iconic Arecibo Observatory dish.
We’ve rounded up the most significant science stories of the year. They showcase the best researchers offered to us, the losses we experienced, and the cautionary tales if science goes unheeded.
Betelgeuse Got Weird
For a brief time in late 2019 and early 2020, it seemed like we might be on the verge of one of the most incredible cosmic spectacles humans will ever see: the explosion of Betelgeuse, the bright, reddish star in the constellation Orion. This red supergiant star, which is scheduled to go supernova sometime between now and 100,000 years from now, had suddenly started dimming. Some speculated that the dimming was a sign that the star was about to die, an explosion that would make it as bright as the Moon in the night sky and visible in the daytime. Alas, it turns out there was probably just some dust blocking our view. Betelgeuse… we’re still waiting.
Murder Hornets, Of Course
If 2020 needed a mascot, it found one in murder hornets. The invasive pests showed up in the U.S. in April, to the horror of just about everyone. Scientists referred to them as a “shockingly large hornet” and “something out of a monster cartoon.” Need we repeat: 2020 mascot.
The hornets have a nasty sting, but they’re mostly known for their ability to completely ravage a hive of honey bees in their native range in Asia, though at least bees there have developed some defences. In the U.S., though, bees haven’t evolved with murder hornets, leaving them defenceless against predation. Scientists have been racing to round up the hornets and eradicate them before they can wreak havoc on U.S. bees, which are already dying at an alarming rate. Even if conservationists are able to get them all, we’ll still have to worry about native horror creatures like a caterpillar with vomit-inducing fur. But better the enemy you know, amirite?
Lots of Water on the Moon
Back in October, NASA teased us with a mysterious press release: It would soon make an “exciting announcement” regarding the Moon. You all had some great guesses as to what the news would be, and yes, we were all a bit bummed that it turned out not to be aliens. Nonetheless, the real news — that researchers had discovered signs of water ice all across the lunar surface — was pretty thrilling, too.
Mystery Virus Sickens Dozens in China
Back in early January 2020, Gizmodo wrote about reports of an unknown virus that had sickened some people in Wuhan, China. Thankfully, we wrote, there wasn’t any evidence yet that the virus could spread between humans. If healthcare workers started getting sick, well, then there would be a lot more reason for concern.
OK, so we all know how this turned out, and no one wants to relive the year in coronavirus news. Suffice it to say, we all need to do better next time — because there will be another pandemic in our lifetimes, and there’s a good chance it will be worse.
Second-Largest Ebola Outbreak Ended
In more uplifting health news, the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history finally ended this summer. Over the course of nearly two years, the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo infected over 3,400 people and killed 2,280. Fortunately, this outbreak had something new: a vaccine. The World Health Organisation led a vaccination campaign that inoculated over 300,000 people, and aggressive contact tracing and testing also helped bring the outbreak under control.
A Record-Breaking Hurricane Season
All the warning signs for a bad hurricane season were present, and yet somehow this year exceeded even the worst forecasts. It began early and ran nearly to the wire, with powerful storms forming as late as mid-November. All told, a record-setting 30 named storms formed in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. A record dozen of them made landfall in the U.S. A record one of them made it all the way to Lake Superior. A one-two punch of November storms in Central America have also created a humanitarian disaster that’s still unfolding. Hurricane season is officially over, and the calendar will soon turn to 2021, but the impacts will be with us for years or even decades to come.
The devastation of the 2020 hurricane season alone would be enough to never want to experience a day of bad weather again, but that’s not all this year had in store. It also brought monster fires to all corners of the globe, from Australia to Siberia to the U.S. The climate crisis was a major culprit, providing the boost of heat needed to dry out fuels and send fires roaring across the landscape.
In Australia, the bushfire season from hell began in 2019 and carried into 2020. Flames first lit up Siberia in April. And by summer, they fanned out across the western U.S., swallowing entire towns and covering the region in a toxic haze. The fires took their toll on research equipment meant to help detect fires and the health of millions of people around the world exposed to smoke. In Australia alone, the bushfire season left the country with a staggering $US1.5 ($2) billion medical bill. To some, those stark satellite images of smoke and forests aflame portended a more flammable future. Which, yes. But the reality is they also show how past choices are with us today.
Astronauts Launch From U.S. Soil
A new chapter in U.S. space travel began this year, as SpaceX launched astronauts to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA hasn’t had the ability to send astronauts to space from U.S. soil, instead paying Russia for seats on its Soyuz spacecraft. With November’s successful launch from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, it’s now officially the dawn of NASA’s Commercial Crew era.
The Loss of Arecibo
Whether you’re a space geek, movie geek, or just an average person, chances are you know Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The iconic structure appeared often in pop culture, including the movies Contact and GoldenEye, but its main role was forming the backbone for some of the most important radio telescope research — including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and monitoring for Earth-threatening asteroids. Trouble for the observatory began in August, when a cable fell and shredded a section of the main dish. It took a second hit from a cable in November, and the whole structure collapsed in December, devastating scientists and science fans across the world. Among its many accomplishments were helping scientists refine their understanding of what constitutes a year on Mercury, returning the first radar maps of Venus, and most famously, hunting for aliens.
As feared, the 740 tonne instrument platform collapsed yesterday at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, falling onto the gigantic radar dish below. Photos of the scene are revealing the extent of the damage at the famous facility, which is known for contributing to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and...Read more
“Of all the radio telescopes I have ever visited, and I have visited a few, Arecibo stands apart as a magically surreal symbol of human ingenuity and exploration,” Andrew Siemion, the director of Berkeley SETI Research Centre that undertook the alien hunt, said following the collapse.
A Black Hole Collided With Something That Shouldn’t Exist
The era of gravitational-wave astronomy is in full swing, and the results so far are absolutely thrilling. This summer, astronomers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo detector picked up ripples in space-time that seemed to come from a black hole colliding with… something of an unusual size. The research detected “an object in the ‘mass gap,’ which is a sort of no-man’s-land between the heaviest neutron star and lightest black hole masses we’ve measured,” said astrophysicist Thankful Cromartie at the time. You can read about the discovery here.
NASA Snatched Some Asteroid
The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, which has been hanging around the asteroid Bennu since late 2018, finally mustered up the courage to scoop some samples this October. Despite a bit of a jammed lid situation, the spacecraft is on track to deliver these bits of asteroid to Earth in 2023.
China’s Moon Mission
China’s Chang’e 5 mission put a robotic lander on the Moon on December 1. The probe gathered up some precious samples and sent them up to a spacecraft waiting in lunar orbit. When the return capsule landed in Mongolia on December 17, it marked the first time in 44 years that a spacecraft had delivered lunar material to Earth. Now, scientists have a rare opportunity to study bits of our natural satellite up close.
The Transformation of the Arctic
This feels like an every-year thing at this point, but it’s still impossible to look away from what’s happening to the northernmost reaches of the globe. This year saw record-setting wildfires, the second-lowest sea ice extent on record, numerous heat waves, and even exploding tundra. Research published this year also showed that Bering Sea ice hasn’t been this low in at least 5,500 years and that freakish sunny skies led to record Greenland ice loss in 2019. Things just ain’t what they used to be.
Scientists also undertook a unique mission to the Arctic, spending a whole year aboard a ship moored in the sea ice — or, as the summer wore on, just chugging through open water. The mission, dubbed MOSAiC, is one of the most ambitious, comprehensive research programs ever undertaken in the harsh environment. Now over, the expedition promises to offer massive trove of data to help make sense of what will become of the increasingly open Arctic Ocean. Though the research cruise remained far from land for a year, it still dealt with a covid-19 scare, and women onboard faced discrimination and harassment.
Mini-Moon Detected Around Earth
Scientists discovered what’s basically a Tamagotchi of celestial bodies: a mini-moon orbiting Earth. This little hunk of space rock was first spotted on Feb. 15 (incidentally, this is Brian’s birthday, so big thanks to the astronomers for the delightful present) by researchers at the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona. Mini-moons show up on rare occasions after getting captured by Earth’s gravity. About the size of a car, the mini-moon was chilling around Earth for about three years until astronomers identified it. It turns out they caught a glimpse of it just in time; by April, it escaped Earth’s pull and continued its normal trip around the Sun.
A Fast Radio Burst in the Milky Way
Astronomers first detected a so-called Fast Radio Burst in 2007, and since then they have catalogued quite a few more of these unusual radio pulses, which sometimes are one-offs and sometimes repeat in odd patterns. No one knew what produced these signals, and none had ever been spotted coming from our own galaxy — until this April. The major discovery this year of a Fast Radio Burst coming from a magnetar in the Milky Way has opened up a whole new phase of research into these pulses.
The Sun Looks Like WHAT?
The 4-metre Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawai’i captured the highest-resolution images ever of the Sun, and, whoa. Each “cell” in this image is about the size of Texas, and yes, there’s video, too. Data from this telescope will help scientists learn more about how the Sun works and hopefully allow them to forecast the solar flares — aka space weather — that can disrupt technology on Earth.
It’s not often that humans are treated to views of a passing comet, but I guess 2020 couldn’t be all bad. A 5 km-wide comet known as NEOWISE was visible to the naked eye in July, and amateur and professional skywatchers alike took some amazing snapshots of it. If you missed it, well, that’s a shame, because this comet won’t be back for some 6,800 years.
Hmm, this roundup ended up being a lot of space news. Maybe we needed a few escapes from Earth this year?
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.