2011's top mysteries of space
Space junkies were treated to a marquee year in 2011, thanks in part to powerful new telescopes that let astronomers peer into previously unseen parts of the universe. From potentially habitable new worlds to a crystallized planet that may very well be one gigantic diamond, a roundup of the year's most exciting intergalactic discoveries:
The year kicked off with a blast from the past when NASA's aging Hubble Space Telescope revealed the oldest galaxy on record. At a "stunning" 13.2 billion years old —the universe itself is only about 13.7 billion years old — the dim cluster of stars was born during an era "when stars and galaxies were first lighting up the universe."
A "gigantic underground moon cave" found by India's space agency caused a stir when scientists theorized that it might one day provide astronauts with "suitable housing." Predictably, the cave — roughly a mile long by about 400 feet wide — had many space lovers dreaming of a "small lunar city."
With more than 370,000 pieces of defunct shuttle parts circling the planet, NASA proposed a novel solution to our massive space junk problem: Lasers. The lasers wouldn't actually destroy garbage, but would send pulses of photon pressure to "nudge" objects out of the way of our skyward spacecraft. But that space junk didn't detract from March's grandest spectacle, which saw the moon make its closest approach to Earth since 1993, awing stargazers with a "dazzling 'supermoon" that was 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a typical moon viewing.
Space junkies were delighted by the brightest explosion ever witnessed by humans. A distant star was ripped apart by a super-massive black hole, creating a swirling "disk of plasma" that "shone with the light of a trillion suns."
Stargazers had a once-in-a-decade chance to catch a "beautiful gathering" of Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury all dancing together in the pre-dawn sky. It was like a "celestial summit meeting," said Joe Rao at Space.com.
An unusual burst of gamma-ray radiation flashing by our planet was thought to be a "mayday call" from a star being torn apart by a massive black hole. The "explosive event" took place in a small galaxy located within the Draco constellation some 3.8 billion light years away. The episode was quite rare — such events take place just "once every 100 million years."
Scientists discovered a giant cloud of water vapor hovering around a distant quasar. The cloud contained more than 4,000 times as much water as we have in the entire Milky Way Galaxy, confirming the longstanding notion that water exists in abundant supply throughout the universe.
Australian astronomers discovered a miraculous planet made entirely out of diamond. With a mass rivaling Jupiter — though 20 times as dense and half as big — the planet's "evolutionary history and amazing density" all suggest that it's made of crystalized carbon. Twinkle, twinkle, indeed.
Star Wars fans insisted that the newly discovered planet "Kepler-16b" ought to be called Tattooine, since it shares an usual feature with Luke Skywalker's home: Each planet orbits two suns. You'd think Kepler-16b would be pretty warm since it has two suns, but actually, the planet is brutally cold — with temperatures of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There probably aren't many future Jedis living there.
Scientists realized that humanity survived a very close call in 1883. A 19th-century astronomer recorded 450 "heavenly objects passing across the face of the sun" — but it wasn't until October 2011 that scientists theorized that the objects were deadly comet fragments passing dangerously close to Earth, each "1,000 times more powerful than an atomic bomb." Good news, though: Humanity survived.
The White House took to its website to publicly reject conspiracy theories about the existence of UFOs, stating flatly that "there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye." Also of note: NASA launched its Curiosity rover on a "long cruise to Mars." Curiosity is charged with finding — you guessed it — evidence of "microbial alien life."
Say hello to "Earth 2.0." Thanks to NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft, a world that could "conceivably harbor life" was found among the stars, sporting a "balmy temperature" of 72 degrees and a high likelihood of liquid water. But don't pack your bags yet. This comfy planet is 600 light years away.