The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (2023)

By Doris Elin Urrutia

published

The universe revealed more of its secrets this year, and new missions will further explore our solar system and beyond.

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (1)

The year 2021 was one of major scientific expansion. Thanks to a variety of exploratory missions and their cutting-edge instruments, astronomers have been able to peer into the cosmos like never before.

Researchers have turned the Earth into a giant telescope to view powerful jets from a black hole. Solar system surveys have revealed new moons and massive comets previously lurking undetected by scientists. The sun has also been a main attraction for research as it reawakens from its recent slumber.

Here's our look back at the 10 biggest space stories of 2021.

1. Discovery of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein

Two researchers unexpectedly discovered the largest-known comet to date.

(Video) The Biggest Space Discoveries and Breakthroughs of 2021! (4K UHD)

Graduate student Pedro Bernardinelli was looking through Dark Energy Survey data to find objects that live beyond Neptune's orbit when he noticed an object significantly farther from the sun than the objects he planned to study. He asked his advisor, cosmologist Gary Bernstein, to have a look.

They had actually detected a comet that is much larger than any of the ones known so far to science: It may be 10 times wider and 1,000 times more massive than a typical comet.

On top of that, this comet has not swung around the sun since the hominid ancestor Lucy walked on the Earth approximately 3 million years ago.

Their finding was officially designated a comet on June 23, 2021 and named Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein after its discoverers.

In a big sweep of scientific luck, astronomers will only have to wait a decade to see this comet approach the sun. Comets come from very far away, originating from one of the outermost regions of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud. Comets journey through our cosmic neighborhood in long elliptical orbits and can take thousands of years to complete one trip around the sun.

Scientists should be able to get a more accurate reading of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein's size and composition when the comet makes its closest to Earth in the year 2031, although it will still be beyond Saturn's average orbit when it swings nearby.

2. Amateur astronomer discovers a new moon around Jupiter

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (2)

A previously-unknown moon has been detected around the largest planet in the solar system.

Jupiter is a giant, so it gravitationally attracts many objects into its vicinity. Earth has one major moon, Mars has two: but Jupiter boasts at least 79 moons, and there may be dozens or hundreds more of them that astronomers have yet to identify.

The latest discovery was made by amateur astronomer Kai Ly, who found evidence of this Jovian moon in a data set from 2003 that had been collected by researchers using the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Mauna Kea. Ly they confirmed the moon was likely bound to Jupiter's gravity using data from another telescope called Subaru.

The new moon, called EJc0061, belongs to the Carme group of Jovian moons. They orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter's rotation at an extreme tilt relative to Jupiter's orbital plane.

3. NASA will return to Venus this decade

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Mars is a popular target for space agencies, but Earth's other neighbor has been garnering more attention recently.

In 2020, researchers announced that they had detected traces of phosphine in Venus' atmosphere. It is a possible biosignature gas, and the news certainly reawakened interest in the planet.

In early June 2021, NASA announced it will launch two missions to Venus by 2030. One mission, called DAVINCI+ (short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, Plus) will descend through the planet's atmosphere to learn about how it has changed over time. The other mission, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will attempt to map the planet's terrain from orbit like never before.

Venus has been visited by robotic probes, but NASA has not launched a dedicated mission to the planet since 1989.

(Video) 10 INSANE Space Discoveries 2021

The interest in Martian exploration may be one reason why Venus has been neglected in recent decades, but the second planet from the sun is also a challenging place to study. Although it may have once been a balmy world with oceans and rivers, a runaway greenhouse effect took hold of Venus around 700 million years ago and now the planet's surface is hot enough to melt lead.

4. The sun is reawakening

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (4)

The sun was experiencing a quiet time in its roughly decade-long cycle, but it is now exiting that phase.

The sun has had very little activity in recent years, but the star's surface is now erupting in powerful events that spew out charged particles towards Earth. In early November, for instance, a series of solar outbursts triggered a large geomagnetic storm on our planet.

This eruption is known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME. It's essentially a billion-ton cloud of solar material with magnetic fields, and when this bubble pops, it blasts a stream of energetic particles out into the solar system. If this material heads in the direction of Earth, it interacts with our planet's own magnetic field and causes disturbances. These can include ethereal displays of auroras near Earth's poles, but can also include satellite disruptions and energy losses.

5. James Webb Space Telescope flies into space

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (5)

A whole new era of space science began on Christmas Day 2021 with the successful launch of the world's next major telescope.

NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency are collaborating on the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a project more than three decades in the making. Space telescopes take a long time to plan and assemble: The vision for this particular spacecraft began before its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, had even launched into Earth orbit.

Whereas Hubble orbits a few hundred miles from Earth's surface, JWST is heading to an observational perch located about a million miles from our planet. The telescope began its journey towards this spot, called the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2 (L2), on Dec. 25, 2021 at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT) when an Ariane 5 rocket launched the precious payload from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The telescope will help astronomers answer questions about the evolution of the universe and provide a deeper understanding about the objects found in our very own solar system.

6. Event Horizon Telescope takes high-resolution image of black hole jet

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In July 2021, the novel project behind the world's first photo of a black hole published an image of a powerful jet blasting off from one of these supermassive objects.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a global collaboration of eight observatories that work together to create one Earth-sized telescope. The end result is a resolution that is 16 times sharper and an image that is 10 times more accurate than what was possible before.

Scientists used EHT's incredible abilities to observe a powerful jet being ejected by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Centaurus A galaxy, one of the brightest objects in the night sky. The galaxy's black hole is so large that it has the mass of 55 million suns.

7. Scientists spot the closest-known black hole to Earth

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (7)

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Just 1,500 light-years from Earth lies the closest-known black hole to Earth, now called "The Unicorn."

Tiny black holes are hard to spot, but scientists managed to find this one when they noticed strange behavior from its companion star, a red giant. Researchers observed its light shifting in intensity, which suggested to them that another object was tugging on the star.

This black hole is super-lightweight at just three solar masses. Its location in the constellation Monoceros ("the unicorn") and its rarity have inspired this black hole's name.

8. Earth's second 'moon' flies off into space

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (8)

An object dropped into Earth's orbit like a second moon, and this year, it made its final close approach of our planet.

It is classified as a "minimoon," or temporary satellite. But it's no stray space rock — the object, known as 2020 SO, is a leftover fragment of a 1960s rocket booster from the American Surveyor moon missions.

On Feb. 2, 2021, 2020 SO reached 58% of the way between Earth and the moon, roughly 140,000 miles (220,000 kilometers) from our planet. It was the minimoon's final approach, but not its closest trip to Earth. It achieved its shortest distance to our planet a few months prior, on Dec. 1, 2020.

It has since drifted off into space and away from Earth's orbit, never to return.

9. Parker Solar Probe travels through the sun's atmosphere

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (9)

This year, NASA's sun-kissing spacecraft swam within a structure that's only visible during total solar eclipses and was able to measure exactly where the star's "point of no return" is located.

The Parker Solar Probe has been zooming through the inner solar system to make close approaches to the sun for the past three years, and it is designed to help scientists learn about what creates the solar wind, a sea of charged particles that flow out of the sun and can affect Earth in many ways.

The spacecraft stepped into the sun's outer atmosphere, known as the corona, during its eight solar flyby. The April 28 maneuver supplied the data that confirmed the exact location of the Alfvén critical surface: the point where the solar wind flows away from the sun, never to return.

The probe managed to get as low as 15 solar radii, or 8.1 million miles (13 million km) from the sun's surface. It was there that it passed through a huge structure called a pseudostreamer, which can be seen from Earth when the moon blocks the light from the sun's disk during a solar eclipse. In a statement about the discovery, NASA officials described that part of the trip as "flying into the eye of a storm."

10. Perseverance begins studying rocks on Mars

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (10)

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Last but not least, this year marked the arrival of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars.

The mission has been working hard to find traces of ancient Martian life since it reached the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. Engineers have equipped Perseverance with powerful cameras to help the mission team decide what rocks are worth investigating.

One of Perseverance's most charming findings has been "Harbor Seal Rock," a curiously-shaped feature that was probably carved out by the Martian wind over many years. Perseverance has also obtained several rock samples this year, which will be collected by the space agency for analysis at some point in the future.

Perseverance is taking its observations from the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, which was home to a river delta and a deep lake billions of years ago.

Follow Doris Elin Urrutia on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021 (11)

Doris Elin Urrutia

(Video) 10 INSANE Space Discoveries 2022

Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and Space.com contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a Space.com editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.

FAQs

What are the new discoveries in space 2021? ›

  • First Glimpse of What Gravity Looks Like on Cosmological Scales.
  • Astronomers Discover Closest Black Hole to Earth.
  • Magnetized Dead Star Likely Has Solid Surface.
  • Mars's Crust More Complex, Evolved Than Previously Thought.

What is the biggest discovery of 2021? ›

10 science breakthroughs of 2021 that you need to know about
  • The Covid-19 vaccine. ...
  • Malaria vaccine for kids. ...
  • Launch of the James Webb Telescope. ...
  • New findings on Mars. ...
  • Closer than ever to finding ET. ...
  • CRISPR gene editing injected into blood. ...
  • New species of early humans. ...
  • Most powerful quantum processor yet.
31 Dec 2021

What has happened in science in 2021? ›

Scientists discovered more about the existence of early humans. And researchers documented how climate change has impacted everything from coral reefs to birds. Covid-19 will continue to garner even more attention next year as scientists work to deal with new variants and develop medical advances to battle the virus.

What are the most recent space discoveries? ›

In 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope detected evidence that carbon dioxide exists on a planet outside of our solar system—the first time evidence of the gas has been found on an exoplanet. The planet, WASP-39b, is a hot gas giant that was discovered in 2011.

What was the biggest discovery of 2022? ›

The Most Important Discovery Of 2022: The James Webb Space Telescope.

What's going on in space 2022? ›

After suborbital tests in 2020 and 2021, SpaceX plans to conduct the first orbital test flight of the fully reusable Starship launch vehicle. The maiden flight of Vulcan Centaur was planned for 2022. The launch vehicle is designed by United Launch Alliance to gradually replace Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy at lower costs.

What is the latest discovery of science 2022? ›

Astronomers report the discovery of HD1, considered to be the earliest and most distant known galaxy yet identified in the observable universe, located only about 330 million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, a light-travel distance of 13.5 billion light-years from Earth, and, due to the expansion of the ...

What are the 10 scientific discoveries? ›

Here we have a look at ten of the world's greatest accidental scientific discoveries.
  • Penicillin. One of the biggest medicinal breakthroughs in history came about entirely by accident. ...
  • Viagra. ...
  • Plastic. ...
  • The Microwave. ...
  • Vaseline. ...
  • Strikeable Match. ...
  • Gunpowder. ...
  • Mauve.
27 Sept 2022

What scientific day is today? ›

National Science Day is celebrated every year on 28 February to mark the discovery of the 'Raman Effect' by Sir C.V. Raman on 28 February 1928. It was this discovery that got Sir C.V. Raman a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.

What are some current events in science? ›

Science News
  • The ancestor to modern brewing yeast has been found hiding in Ireland. ...
  • Homo naledi may have lit fires in underground caves at least 236,000 years ago. ...
  • Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano is erupting. ...
  • A bizarre gamma-ray burst breaks the rules for these cosmic eruptions.

Who went to space recently 2022? ›

Expedition 67 formally began aboard the station after undocking, with new station Commander Tom Marshburn, NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Matthias Maurer, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov.

What did NASA recently find? ›

'Nasa Discovery' - 110 News Result(s)

In its latest discovery, the NASA's Perseverance rover has found that the floor of the crater, which once hosted a lake billion years ago, is made up of volcanic rocks rather than sedimentary rocks, as believed earlier.

What's NASA's newest project? ›

NASA's Artemis missions aim to "land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon", explore the lunar surface, and lay the groundwork for sending astronauts to Mars. Find out more about this groundbreaking new era in space exploration.

What NASA found 2022? ›

It's been a landmark year for discovering new, fascinating worlds. In 2022, NASA surpassed 5,000 confirmed exoplanets, which are alien worlds beyond our solar system. These include a diversity of distant planets, including (perhaps rocky) super-Earths, gas giants like Jupiter, "ice giants" like Neptune, and beyond.

Did NASA find a new planet? ›

NASA's satellite found planet LP 890-9b, which is about 30% larger than Earth and orbits its sun in just 2.7 days.

What is the new planet called? ›

Called “Proxima d,” it's the third planet found orbiting Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star just 4.24 light-years from the Sun.

Is our sun old? ›

Our Sun is 4,500,000,000 years old. That's a lot of zeroes. That's four and a half billion.

How many planet we have now? ›

Our solar system is made up of a star, eight planets, and countless smaller bodies such as dwarf planets, asteroids, and comets.

When's the next trip to space? ›

ROCKET LAUNCH: December 8, 2022 | SpaceX Falcon 9 OneWeb 15.

Who is the youngest scientist in the world 2022? ›

(Wednesday, October 19, 2022) – 3M (@3M) and Discovery Education (@DiscoveryEd) have named Leanne Fan, a 9th grader at Westville High School in Poway Unified School District in San Diego, Calif., the winner of the 2022 3M Young Scientist Challenge (#YoungScientist), the nation's premier middle school science ...

How old is the earth? ›

Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, plus or minus about 50 million years. Scientists have scoured the Earth searching for the oldest rocks to radiometrically date. In northwestern Canada, they discovered rocks about 4.03 billion years old.

What is the last living creature on Earth? ›

But according to new research from physicists at Harvard and Oxford, one thing is nearly certain: long after humans are gone, the tardigrade will live on. The tardigrade, also known as the waterbear, is an 8-legged extremophile renowned for its ability to survive where every other complex living organism cannot.

What is the rarest animal 2021? ›

The rarest animal in the world is the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). It is a kind of critically endangered porpoise that only lives in the furthest north-western corner of the Gulf of California in Mexico. There are only 18 left in the world.

Who is the father of science? ›

Albert Einstein called Galileo the “father of modern science.” Galileo Galilei was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy but lived in Florence, Italy for most of his childhood.

What is the most famous discovery of all time? ›

Without the discovery of DNA, we wouldn't have all the ground-breaking studies going on right now in genome mapping and sequencing, so for that reason, DNA has to be my number one scientific discovery of all time.

What are 10 scientific facts? ›

Some Amazing Science Facts
  • The oceans produce the majority of the oxygen on Earth. ...
  • Soil is full of life. ...
  • Bananas are radioactive. ...
  • Water can exist in three states at the same time. ...
  • Helium has the ability to work against gravity. ...
  • Humans have inherited genes from other species. ...
  • Human Body. ...
  • Animals and Insects.

What is November 27th? ›

Each year on November 27th, National Bavarian Cream Pie Day recognizes a pie that makes a grand entrance. This rich and delectable dessert is possible, thanks to the French chef, Marie-Antione Carême.

Is Feb 28 a special day? ›

In 1986, the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) asked the Government of India to designate 28 February as National Science Day which the then Govt. of India accepted and declared the day as National Science Day in 1986.

What is the theme for 2022 Science Week? ›

National Science Week 2022 theme

The school theme for National Science Week in 2022 is Glass: More than meets the eye.

What is a recent science discovery? ›

Discovery of World's Oldest DNA Breaks Record by One Million Years. Dec. 7, 2022 — Two-million-year-old DNA has been identified -- opening a 'game-changing' new chapter in the history of evolution. Microscopic fragments of environmental DNA were found in Ice Age sediment in ...

What are the 7 types of science? ›

Each type is a tool which has something to offer, and each type has its limits.
  • Type 1 science: orthodox science or sensu stricto science.
  • Type 2 science: interpretations placed on observations.
  • Type 3 science: fraud.
  • Type 4 science: fiddling science.
  • Type 5 science: speculation.
  • Type 6 science: Polemic.

What are the 4 topics of science? ›

Science Topics
  • Astronomy.
  • Biology.
  • Chemistry.
  • Computer Science.
  • Ecology.
  • Geography.
  • Geology.
  • Linguistics.

How many astronauts are lost in space? ›

During spaceflight. As of March 2021, in-flight accidents have killed 15 astronauts and 4 cosmonauts, in five separate incidents. Three of them had flown above the Kármán line (edge of space), and one was intended to do so. In each case, the entire crew was killed.

How much do astronauts get paid? ›

Astronauts who work for civilian agencies like NASA earn a base salary of $104,898 per year. However, their salaries can increase to $161,141 per year. Furthermore, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said that he would be willing to pay his astronauts up to $500,000 for a trip to Mars.

Who is currently living in space? ›

The current ISS occupants are NASA astronauts Megan McArthur, Mark Vande Hei, Kimbrough, Hopkins, Walker and Glover; JAXA's Noguchi and Akihiko Hoshide; the European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet; and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov.

What was found on Mars 2022? ›

It wasn't until April 2022, when Perseverance finally arrived at the delta, that scientists found what they had been looking for. In the past few months, the rover has collected two pairs of cores from different types of sedimentary rock that make up the edge of the delta.

What planet could humans live on? ›

Then, just last year, scientists discovered another Earth-like planet orbiting one of our closest neighboring stars, Proxima Centauri. Currently, this planet is the best candidate we have for supporting human life.

Can we live on super-Earth? ›

Rocky planets larger than our own, so-called super-Earths, are surprisingly abundant in our Galaxy, and stand as the most likely planets to be habitable.

What is the biggest NASA project right now? ›

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Webb will probe for the "first light" after the Big Bang and find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy.

What is NASA's next rocket? ›

[1/5] NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from launch complex 39-B on the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to the moon, seen from Sebastian, Florida, U.S. November 16, 2022.

Is SpaceX replacing NASA? ›

SpaceX's Starlink may replace NASA's space telecoms network in the next decade. The U.S. space agency wants to focus on science and exploration and hand over all low Earth orbit services to commercial players.

What did NASA find in space recently? ›

NASA has discovered the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet outside of our solar system - CBS News.

What did NASA launch 2021? ›

NASA Climate, Earth Science

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the Landsat 9 satellite onboard launches, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

What is NASA's latest invention? ›

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket were named 2022 TIME Inventions of the Year. NASA led the international Webb partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

Is there a human in space now? ›

The space station has been continuously occupied since November 2000. An international crew of seven people live and work while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth about every 90 minutes.

Is there an asteroid coming in 2022? ›

Astronomers say they have discovered the largest planet killer-sized asteroid in eight years, and that the huge space rock will cross Earth's orbit. The asteroid, named 2022 AP7, was reported by researchers looking for space rocks within the orbits of Earth and Venus.

Is there a new planet in space? ›

Astronomers find a new planet that's mostly made of iron

NASA's satellite found planet LP 890-9b, which is about 30% larger than Earth and orbits its sun in just 2.7 days.

What will happen in 2025 NASA? ›

In 2025, NASA's Artemis Program is expected to launch the Artemis III mission, which will land astronauts near the south pole of the Moon. It is expected to be the first mission to land humans on the Moon since 1972.

What was sent to space on Christmas Day? ›

NASA launches James Webb telescope into space on Christmas Day.

What is NASA next big project? ›

NASA's return to the Moon under Artemis will prepare humanity for our next giant leap to Mars.

What is NASA's next move? ›

NASA's Artemis program aims to land another man and the first woman on the moon by 2024 and eventually establish sustainable space travel by 2028. The Artemis program is NASA's stepping stone to their ultimate goal of landing on Mars.

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