At this time of year, many news sites, blogs, and others like to post a year in review…I’m not going to do that. It’s been a long, crazy year, much like the four-ish years before that. The news cycle has just gone so crazy that I don’t feel like spending the time to put one together.
Instead, since it’s not just the end of the year, but the end of the 2010s, I thought I would look ahead at what exciting new astronomy and astrophysics stories we’re likely to see in the 2020s. I could talk about science in general for this. Will we eradicate polio? Start cloning humans? Use CRISPR for gene therapy? But I’m not so well versed in those things, so I think I’ll play it safe and stick to astronomy.
Possibly the biggest story in astronomy over the next decade will be the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope will launch on March 31, 2021* and will tell us more about planets, the early universe, and everything in between than ever before.
But JWST is not the only big, new telescope being built. We have the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will start operating in 2022. This telescope has the largest camera ever made at 3.2 gigapixels, big enough to photograph the entire sky every three nights (a task that usually takes months for an 8-meter telescope like this one). Its specialty will be observing event that vary on scales of day to weeks, like supernovae, asteroids, and most likely the ever-elusive Planet Nine.
And on top of that, there are not one, but three new giant telescopes under construction, each with a mirror the size of a basketball court or bigger. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) should be up and running in 2028. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is in and out of legal limbo, but its builders hope to have it ready by 2027. And the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT—astronomers aren’t the most creative with names) is still listing first light in 2025, although I’m a bit skeptical there. Much like JWST, these telescopes will provide very high-resolution details about exoplanets and the early universe.
Are We Alone?
There are three ways we could potentially detect life on other worlds in the next ten years. First, we could detect radio signals from an alien civilization, which is what SETI is trying to do. I wouldn’t put much money on that one. Second, we could discover microbes (or larger organisms) elsewhere in our solar system, like under the ice of Europa with the upcoming Europa Clipper and possible Europa Lander. This is more likely, but even if it’s there, it might be very difficult to see.
And third, we could detect signatures of life in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets with that next generation of giant telescopes I mentioned. And I don’t mean CO2 levels. I’m talking about things like oxygen and methane that should only be produced by life**. And this one, I think, is fairly likely. It would be very challenging, but if there’s something there to be found, I’d give a 50-50 chance of finding it in the next decade.
If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said I was very confident that we would figure out what dark matter is in the 2020s. Now, I’m not so sure. We have dark matter detectors like XENON, and they haven’t spotted anything. If dark matter is what we think it is, they kind of should have. The Large Hadron Collider hasn’t seen any new physics besides the Higgs boson, and with the physics we had guessed govern dark matter, it kind of should have. It’s increasingly looking like our models may be wrong. However, there’s still a chance that they’re right. There are still a few places we haven’t looked. And if dark matter is hiding in one of those, we’ll probably find it soon.
There have already been a lot of stories about gravitational waves found by the LIGO detector in the past several years. We’ve seen black holes colliding and neutron stars colliding for sure. But we can expect a lot more in the coming years, including neutron star-black hole mergers and the first useful statistics of the populations of these strange objects.
The Great American Eclipse, Round 2
On April 8, 2024, there will be a second total solar eclipse crossing North America. This one will start in central Mexico, move up to Texas, continue diagonally across the United States, intersecting the path of the 2017 eclipse in southern Illinois, and finally leave along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. This promises to be even better than the last one, with totality lasting up to four and a half minutes.
If you can’t make it to North America, you may still have options. There are other total eclipses coming this decade. Try Argentina and Chile on December 14, 2020. Spain and Iceland are in luck on August 12, 2026. A major over-land eclipse occurs on August 2, 2027, passing over the region of the Mediterranean and Red Seas, notably including Mecca***. And rounding out the decade, there is a Great Australian Eclipse passing directly over Sydney on July 22, 2028.
A much larger slice of the world gets to see Lunar eclipses regularly. Anywhere the Moon is up, it is eclipsed. But here are some highlights. Eastern Australia sees one on May 26, 2021. The Eastern United States and South America see one on May 15, 2022, and my friends on the West Coast get their turn six months later on November 8. All of North America and western South America get to watch on March 13, 2025, and much of Asia on September 7 of that year. Asia gets another one on December 31, 2028, then South America on June 25, 2029, and finally, Europe and Africa get their only total lunar eclipse of the decade right at the end on December 20, 2029.
Well, this one I don’t want to make so many predictions about. To be sure, there is some exciting stuff here: the Mars 2020 rover, the Europa Clipper, Boeing’s and SpaceX’s commercial human flight plans, and of course the Artemis Program to return to the Moon. But these are all much more sensitive to congressional funding, and frankly, I don’t trust any predictions I make beyond the next Presidential election to be reliable. But I’m excited to see what happens.
* I hope. Please. *Knocks on wood.*
** Or at least should only be produced together by life. There are other processes that can produce either methane or oxygen separately, but we wouldn’t see them together because methane is flammable.
*** Cue the apocalypse conspiracy theories and Nostradamus History Channel specials in 3…2…1…