From the birth of humankind, we have looked up at the stars for guidance and light. Many of our early cultures and monuments, from the pyramids of Egypt, sites dotted across England and Ireland, to South American sites like Uxmal and Chitchen Itza (Mayan), were built around the movement of the sun and stars in the night sky. We have been trying to unravel their mysteries ever since. And people have made a business of it from time immemorial. From cartographers to sailors to occultists, space has meant money.
The science of everything beyond our terrestrial atmosphere has been brought to light by legends like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who opened our eyes to endless possibilities – backed up by the rigours of scientific inquiry. Today, we continue their legacy to further study and understand our universe and the possibilities it holds for humanity. Here’s what’s unfolded in recent years.
In Search of New Worlds - JWST
Astrophysics is a branch of Astronomy that tries to understand the stuff of the universe- what its made of and how it works – it includes the study of the origins of the universe and its future, the birth and death of the Sun and all stars, the possibility of life on other planets, as well as nebulae, extrasolar planets, meteors and so on. And this study has been enhanced in all sorts of wondrous ways with the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, the largest of its kind ever built. Over a decade in the making, this remarkable engineering marvel is showing us images of cosmic phenomena we have heretofore only guessed at, giving us new insight into the early formation of the universe and its ancient secrets. NASA released its first pictures in July ‘22. Besides yielding new discoveries about galaxies, stars, nebulae, exoplanets and more, space explorations and data received signal a new era in the search for livable planets and further opens up the gleaming possibility of finding life beyond our own blue planet!
Scientists eagerly await JWST’s exploration of TRAPPIST-1, a nearby star system that is believed to be capable of supporting life. One of the key functions of the telescope is to be able to analyse the light passing into a planet’s atmosphere as it could reveal biosignature gasses that could signify alien biology. While it will take years to get any of this critical data, exciting revelations are inevitable as the JWST continues its ten-year journey through our cosmos.
According to NASA, dark matter is believed to constitute over 27 percent of the known universe. Scientists and researchers from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) project in Northern Chile have released a staggering new map of dark matter encapsulating a fourth of the sky and ranging deep within the cosmos. It uses light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is light produced during the universe’s early infancy, to throw into relief all matter that lies between us and the Big Bang.
Dark matter is very difficult to study because it does not interact with light or electromagnetic radiation- so far, all we know is that it only interacts with gravity, making it perniciously difficult to study. This discovery gives scientists critical information into how dark matter binds and connects the matrix of the universe and how it distorts CMB on its way to us through space telescopes or on earth.
In July ‘22 researchers at MIT – discovered an exciting new multi-planetary system and one of the closest galactic neighbours we know of today. Two rocky Earth-sized planets orbit a small, cool M-dwarf star (called HD 260665) in tight circles. These planets are likely uninhabitable as their orbits are too close to their star to allow for liquid surface water with correspondingly high temperatures. However, researchers believe they present an excellent opportunity for observation because of the proximity between the star and planets, which creates the right levels of brightness to study their atmospheres and other properties. The researchers are hopeful that they might find more planets in this system and perhaps one of them could be in the habitable zone!
The Milky Way Colossus
Black Holes are one of the most fascinating phenomena in our universe. Picture a point in space so dense, so heavy and exerting so much gravity that no force, not even light can escape. Difficult to do? Most people feel that way because black holes are by nature invisible. Almost paradoxically however, just beyond the point of no return – where nothing can escape a black hole’s mighty gravitational pull, light is still visible, bent by this same gravity, which signals its presence. Scientists postulate that there is a supermassive black hole at the centre of most galaxies, with the mass of at least a few million or billion times the mass of the Sun!
In 2020, Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of Sagittarius A – the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. In 2022, the world was able to see it for the first time thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a blurry bright ring surrounding a deep black centre – 27,000 light years from Earth, at a blistering 10 billion degrees Celsius, weighing over 4 billion times the mass of our Sun – a true juggernaut at the heart of our galaxy!
The Source of Dark Energy?
One of the biggest questions in Astrophysics and Cosmology in the last 20 years has been this – why is the expansion of the universe accelerating instead of slowing down? Researchers sought to explain this with the concept of dark energy, which as opposed to gravity, pushes matter apart more powerfully. But a sticky problem remained in terms of black holes, whose powerful gravity could not be fully explained with this theory.
In a study led by the University of Hawaii, a team of 17 researchers from nine countries have put forward the possibility that dark energy emanates from black holes, potentially resolving this conundrum. That the centre of a black hole may not be a void as previously thought but rather filled with vacuum energy with complex properties of its own. These findings, based on data from over nine billion years of black hole evolution, could revolutionize cosmology and change our understanding of how the universe works and the forces that control it.
The Quasar Enigma - Finally Solved?
Quasars are considered among the brightest, most powerful phenomena in the universe. A quasar is an object of extremely high luminosity, composed of gas whirling at high speeds to form a supermassive black hole at its centre. It can burn with the light of a trillion stars packed into the space of the solar system. Since it was discovered over 60 years ago, scientists have pondered what could cause such a tremendous reaction and now there is a possible answer.
Using deep imaging from the Isaac Newton Telescope in La Palma, scientists from Sheffield and Hertfordshire posit that quasars are created by galaxies crashing together in space. Their sheer brilliance is a result of the radiation produced by gasses being absorbed into a black hole at the centre of one of the galaxies!
The business of space
As we learn newer things about our universe, and with increasing collaboration between governments and private players, a new era of billionaire space entrepreneurship and tourism has begun with Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) jetting off to space in July 2021. Both have plans to grow the space tourism industry, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme that has launched over 4100 satellites (according to one source) into orbit as a part of its Starlink programme. The SpaceX Starship orbital test flight in April 2023 was also the tallest and most powerful rocket ever flown. Although it exploded, it has been called a success given the audacity of the project. Of course, this space race has raised concerns over its climate impact- with ozone depletion being a key issue, space is now business. Fun fact, at the time this article was written, Bezos’ Blue Origin inviting you to “book a window seat on a life changing spaceflight” on New Shepard whose crew capsule has six seats left!
The European Space Agency, for example) has thriving entrepreneurial ventures (technology transfer programmes) that spin off emergent space-based technologies to enable life on earth, so-to-speak. The world of materials science offers new options of created material that brings commercial advantages to business on the planet, and the list goes on.
The UAE’s new frontiers
The UAE has made major strides in advancing space exploration efforts across fields.
The Emirates Mars Mission was the first of its kind in the Arab world, sending the Hope space probe into Mars’ orbit in 2021. Built by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, its main goal is to study the atmosphere of Mars, particularly its weather cycles. All information collected will contribute to the burgeoning knowledge-based economy of the UAE.
The UAE’s Rashid rover was one of the first space missions to land a commercial rover on the moon in April 2023. The rover is built to study lunar soil which contains a record of the early solar system, as well as lunar dust and the moon’s geological properties. Unfortunately, contact was lost shortly before landing and no updates on the mission’s success were available at the time this article was written. Researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Space Science discovered a group of waves in the Sun moving three times the expected speed and in the opposite direction. These discoveries could change how we study the Sun and its impact on Earth and other planets in the solar system.
Space for business
The last three years have opened new windows into the world of astrophysics and 2023 is touted to be an epochal year for space exploration, with numerous projects in the pipeline across the world. And all of this holds potential not just for discovery but holds possibility for new business options. Like a Starbucks on the moon, someday… who knows? For those of us curious about our larger world, it’s a great time to be alive. In the words of Arthur C Clark, “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” And in impossibility, often lies opportunity.