From Popular Mechanics
The Decade, Reviewed looks back at the 2010s and how it changed human society forever. From 2010 to 2019, our species experienced seismic shifts in science, technology, entertainment, transportation, and even the very planet we call home. This is how the past ten years have changed us.
In the early years of the 2010s, the world waited breathlessly for NASA to make the call. For nearly 35 years, two intrepid spacecraft surged past the planets in our solar system, snapping pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune among other photogenic worlds. They hurtled toward an ominous barrier—the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space.
Finally, analysis of particles captured by Voyager 1 published Sept. 2013 in the journal revealed that the Mini Cooper-sized spacecraft had crossed the divide some time during the late summer. Due to its trajectory, Voyager 2 would not skirt across the boundary for another six years. It was the farthest humanity had stretched into space. We had surpassed a seemingly insurmountable barrier.
Around the same time that year, scientists announced that they had finally detected the elusive Higgs boson particle, completing the Standard Model of physics. In 2014, Hubble—which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in April of this next year—released its most impressive deep field of view snapshot ever. The existence of another tiny particle, the neutrino, was confirmed in 2018.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope spotted an incredible number of exoplanets—more than 2,700 of them between 2009 and 2018. TESS, the Kepler replacement that launched in 2018, has already spotted 34 exoplanets.
It is human nature to gaze upward toward the stars, to wonder what’s out there, to imagine going there. In the past decade, we’ve achieved previously unimaginable physical milestones, and our understanding of the universe has deepened significantly.
But as we look back on a decade that glimpsed deep space unlike ever before, it’s the discovery of gravitational waves in February of 2016 that will forever change astronomy. That discovery, which was predicted by Einstein exactly 100 years earlier, unleashed a new age of exploration. For centuries, we’ve been fumbling around in the dark while trying to understand what lies beyond our solar system.
In the 2010s, science turned on a light.
Two black holes began a cataclysmic dance 1.3 billion years ago. They circled each other like cats, churning, twisting, gyrating toward a central point. One had a mass 36 times that of the sun, the other, which was no more than 300 miles wide, had a mass 29 times that of our home star.
When the black holes eventually collided, they shot ripples through the fabric of space—gravitational waves that scientists believed they could measure with instruments here on Earth. The amount of energy produced right before the blast, National Geographic reported in 2016, was greater than the amount of energy produced by all of the stars in all of the universe’s galaxies, combined.
Everything that has mass and moves sets off these gravitational waves—even us. But the waves we generate, and the waves generated by the collision of two asteroids, are too faint to be registered by instruments. It takes an event like this black hole collision or the death of a neutron star to catch these gravitational waves.
“It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us in gravitational waves,” physicist David Reitze of Caltech said during a press conference announcing the discovery. Luckily, we were listening.
In order to measure gravitational waves, researchers had to build an incredibly precise and incredibly large machine called an interferometer. So, a team of researchers developed plans in the 1980s to build one of the largest and most sensitive interferometers in the world, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.
Two L-shaped sensors equipped with a set of perpendicular mirrors were set up in Washington state and Louisiana. Scientists would measure changes in spacetime between these mirrors in order to chart these gravitational waves as they surged across the planet. (Gravitational waves compress spacetime in one direction and expand it in the other.)
Finally, after 100 years of speculation, multiple failure, and a significant and costly equipment upgrade, the instruments at LIGO didn’t just record the gravitational anomaly, they captured the sound that came along with it, a characteristic chirp.
In 2017, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne of Caltech and physicist Barry Barish of UC Berkeley and Caltech, along with physicist Rainier Weiss of MIT, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work with LIGO.
A New Era of Exploration
In 2021, a new space telescope will launch from Earth. The James Webb Space Telescope, will hover at the Lagrange point, nearly 1 million miles from Earth, poised to explore the more distant cosmos than ever before. Its lenses will pierce through clouds of interstellar dust and capture light that has woven its way through the dark, sparse fabric of space.
Telescopes like Hubble, Kepler and James Webb explore the universe by capturing images in visible, near-infrared and ultraviolet light. We can measure other celestial events and objects using instruments that gather data across the electromagnetic spectrum. These instruments bear witness to some of the universe’s most alluring sights: billowing dust clouds, star nurseries, and hazy exoplanets. But there’s a hidden universe that they aren’t able to view.
Black holes, after all, consume light and are difficult to image. Pulsars can be just as difficult to spot using traditional methods of astronomy. Thanks to the LIGO team, scientists now have the tools to spot celestial events that aren’t visible on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The outer reaches of deep space feel closer than ever before. Just a decade ago, scientists would have only dreamed of snapping a picture of a black hole or characterizing, in exquisite detail, the climatic conditions present on exoplanets orbiting faraway stars.
Now, exploring the cosmos using gravitational waves, scientists could reveal celestial events that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see, like flipping on a light switch in a dark room. Now, distant corners of the universe will be illuminated. This helps scientists chart out the universe in sharper detail.
And we’ve already caught a glimpse of this exciting future since LIGO’s 2016 discovery. In 2018, scientists from LIGO and their counterpart in Europe, VIRGO, announced that the team had spotted a total of ten black hole mergers and one neutron star merger had been spotted. In February 2019, the LIGO team received a $30 million grant to upgrade their equipment, and the European Space Agency has plans to launch a trio of space-based gravity wave detectors called LISA.
So…what will we discover in the next decade?
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