The biggest science story of 2016 was a century in the making, and will surely earn someone a Nobel Prize. The first detection of gravitational waves from the crash of two black holes is important not only for the physics of the past and present, but for the physics of the future as well.
The discovery – made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO – serves as powerful confirmation for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was published in 1916. It also points the way for scientists to study black holes and other exotic phenomena that can’t be observed using the traditional tools of astronomy.
“What’s really exciting is what comes next,” David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said when the discovery was announced in February. “I think we’re opening a window on the universe – a window of gravitational wave astronomy.”
The 2.5-mile-wide LIGO facilities near Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., use super-sensitive laser beams and reflectors to detect faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime, down to far less than 1 percent the width of a proton.
The detectors were taken offline for a months-long upgrade, but the observational campaign resumed last month. Michael Landry, the head of the LIGO Hanford Observatory, emailed GeekWire his perspective on the past year’s advances:
“The past year has been a truly extraordinary one for LIGO. The detection of GW150914 was the first observation of the last great prediction of Einstein’s relativity. But as exciting as that was, the second observation of a binary black hole merger on Christmas Night 2015 cemented for me that gravitational wave astronomy was under way.
“The coming year will bring new binary black holes, and new science. Our second observation run on which we recently embarked will last about six months. We’ll learn more about black holes in the process, and we could observe other systems, such as binary neutron stars, or spinning isolated pulsars. At some point, Virgo will begin observations, and everything gets better with three detectors.”
As LIGO becomes more sensitive, it could test even more way-out theories about the nature of black holes: For example, do they contain hidden “firewalls” that destroy whatever comes in contact with them? Can they generate particles known as axions, which could explain the mystery of dark matter?
Speaking of axions, the world’s best-known experiment to hunt for such particles is headquartered close at hand, at the University of Washington. Thanks to the Axion Dark Matter Experiment and LIGO Hanford, you could argue that the quest to solve some of the biggest mysteries of the universe is a local story.
9 more top stories of 2016
Totally reusable spaceship actually gets reused: Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, notched its first suborbital trip to space and back in November 2015. But it wasn’t until January that its New Shepard craft made a reflight with all the same hardware. The rocket ship was retired in October after five successful flights, and is now sitting in Blue Origin’s production facility in Kent, Wash. SpaceX also perfected its booster landing routine, at sea as well as on land. SpaceX suffered a setback in September when a Falcon 9 rocket blew up on its Florida launch pad, but billionaire Elon Musk’s company is working to return to flight.
Weird signals stoke SETI interest: Are aliens out there? A couple of anomalies captured our attention, including what at first appeared to be intentional signals from a star system 95 light-years away. Russian astronomers eventually determined the signals were most probably a case of terrestrial interference, but the search goes on. Astronomers are still puzzling over a strange pattern of dimming and brightening in the light from a source known as Boyajian’s Star, but the prevailing view is that the cause is cosmic clouds rather than an alien megastructure.
Closest extrasolar planet discovered: After analyzing data for years, astronomers announced the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, a potentially habitable planet that’s orbiting the closest star to our sun. It’s 4.2 light-years away, which rules out making a trip anytime soon, but Proxima b is nevertheless a great candidate for further study. Efforts are under way to focus a space telescope on the Alpha Centauri system’s two other suns, and eventually send a fleet of mini-probes past them.
Drones start making deliveries: The Federal Aviation Administration’s long-awaited regulations for commercial drone operations don’t go quite far enough to usher in the age of widespread package deliveries by drones, but Amazon announced that it’s begun an experimental delivery service in England. Google’s Project Wing conducted its own experiment with burrito delivery in Virginia. Meanwhile, a startup called Flirtey is also delivering food and other convenience-store items for 7-Eleven to a neighborhood in Reno, Nevada, although that operation isn’t as technologically advanced as Amazon’s. Amazon also got into the cargo delivery business with its own fleet of branded Prime Air 767 jets.
Solar-powered odyssey comes full circle: After a months-long hiatus, the Swiss-led Solar Impulse effort sent a custom-built, solar-powered plane onward from Hawaii to finish up a record-setting, round-the-world odyssey. The flight is part of a shift toward energy alternatives for aviation, including all-electric airplanes and biofuels for passenger jets.
Juno probe reaches Jupiter: NASA’s solar-powered Juno orbiter reached the solar system’s biggest planet on the Fourth of July, after a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile cruise, and is sending back jaw-dropping pictures of Jupiter. (Not to be confused with Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics, which was another big story in 2016.)
Mars vision comes into focus: SpaceX’s Elon Musk shared his vision for sending a million settlers to the Red Planet during a presentation in Mexico that took on the trappings of a rock concert. If SpaceX holds to the schedule Musk laid out, preparatory robotic missions to Mars could begin in 2018, and people could follow within a decade.
All systems Go for AI: It’s notable that Google Deepmind’s AlphaGo AI program was able to beat one of the world’s masters in the ancient game of Go, but there’s a deeper significance as well. Advances in artificial intelligence are blazing a trail for autonomous vehicles and smartening up AI assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri. After a series of workshops that began in Seattle, the White House issued a sheaf of AI policy papers that could set the agenda for years to come.
Godspeed, John Glenn (and Joe Sutter): 2016 brought its share of setbacks, but the deaths of 95-year-old John Glenn, the first American astronaut to go into orbit; and 95-year-old Joe Sutter, Boeing’s “Father of the 747,” were also opportunities to look back at lives well-lived.
5 top trends for 2017
Who can predict what will happen in the year to come? Few crystal balls survived 2016 unscathed, but in the realms of aerospace and science, here are five trends worth watching:
Private-sector astronauts go into space (again): It’s been a dozen years since SpaceShipOne sent the first commercial astronauts into outer space. I thought the next ones would follow in just a couple of years, but my crystal ball was clearly wrong back then. Will 2017 be the big year? Blue Origin is planning to send astronauts on test flights aboard New Shepard next year, in preparation for commercial operations in 2018. And Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is performing crewed flight tests as well, eventually aiming for outer-space altitudes. Sounds like the makings of a suborbital space race, but with safety as the primary consideration.
Do-or-die time for commercial moon missions: At least five teams have been cleared to go after the Google Lunar XPRIZE next year. But in order to win a share of the $30 million purse, they’ll have to get their landers to the moon’s surface by the end of 2017. Moon Express went so far as to get preliminary clearance from U.S. government agencies for its mission. Will private enterprise make it to the moon next year? Stay tuned.
Crunch time for climate science: President-elect Donald Trump has declared concerns about climate change to be a “hoax,” and there have been signals that the U.S. government will cut back on climate research as well as policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Will others step in to fill the gap? This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown said his state would “launch its own damn satellites” if the Trump administration puts the kibosh on climate-monitoring missions. That I’d like to see.
Boom or bust for Boeing? It’s been the best of times and the worst of times for Washington state’s best-known aerospace company. The “bests” include the first flight of Boeing’s fuel-efficient, single-aisle 737 MAX airplane, and this summer’s Boeing centennial celebration. Among the “worsts”: lagging demand for wide-body jets, which has led to thousands of lost jobs in the Seattle area and more to come in 2017. And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s spat with Boeing executives over the multibillion-dollar Air Force One replacement effort. Just this week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg promised Trump that the cost of the project will be less than $4 billion – which is no big surprise.
Must-see solar eclipse: There’s at least one sure thing for 2017: Americans will get their best opportunity in a generation to see a total solar eclipse. On Aug. 21, the moon will blot out the sun completely along a narrow streak of the United States that extends from the Oregon coast to the coast of South Carolina. If you’re looking for accommodations in the path of totality, you’d better hurry. If the skies are clear, more than 90 percent of the sun’s disk will be obscured for viewers in the Seattle area, which means eye protection will be a must. Fortunately, the Moore Foundation is funding an effort to make more than a million solar viewing glasses available at libraries across America.